When Mark Heard passed away, it wasn’t really a surprise; it was just a bummer. He had been recovering from a heart attack, and as I’ve heard it said, someone told him a joke so funny that he laughed himself out of this world and into the next. Laughing your way out of this world full of tears doesn’t seem to be a bad way to go.
Mark was a great songwriter and artist who had recorded quite a few records during the 70s and 80s. Toward the end of his career, he released two records which were artistic apexes. He was only getting better. He left this world before achieving any household word name status, but among songwriters and musicians, he remains greatly admired.
The week of Mark’s passing, I was playing a gig in LA and managed to get to his memorial service. Most of the folks in attendance were fellow musicians, and quite a few of them performed. Some of these folks eventually would migrate to Nashville. Two of those would-be emigrants were Buddy and Julie Miller.
The next day, the Millers were performing at the same venue that I was playing at, and we ended up in the green room together. I was knocked out by their music, by Julie’s heart on her sleeve lyrics, and by both of their world weary vocals. Julie was one of very few Christian artists whose music fully engaged me. I was drawn to the wounded, broken lyrics and the sparse instrumentation. Little did I how this initial meeting would alter and enrich the course of my life.
When the Millers moved to Nashville, we struck up a friendship and a work relationship.
Meanwhile, Emmylou Harris recorded, “All My Tears”, written by Julie in the wake of Mark’s passing, and years later, when I was in her band, we occasionally performed it. It was also a staple of Buddy’s setlist, performed nearly every time I played in his band, a none-too-fond farewell to a world that wounds its inhabitants.
For many years, whether it was a Julie record or a Buddy record, or someone else Buddy was working with, I would be called into Buddy’s studio to play accordion, Hammond organ, and occasionally other instruments like lap steel or pump organ. This was a joyous season in a career which has given me much joy. Julie has no rivals when it comes to writing lyrics which lay the heart bare, expose the brokenness which is common to all of us, and perhaps turn the listener’s heart into a fertile ground for redemption.
Eventually, the many recording sessions turned into concert opportunities with Buddy, and I traveled the world as a member of his band, perhaps the greatest live music experience of my life. A reviewer once said that Buddy’s voice sounded like the ghosts of Howlin’ Wolf and Hank Williams were battling for control of it. I can’t even begin to draw comparisons to Buddy’s guitar work, so distinct it is.
Every time Buddy invited me to play on a record or perform somewhere, my resume would gather a few more great names. I would find myself on stages with the likes of Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Allen Toussaint, Judy Collins, and many others. These were golden days, heady and mind-blowing, days which I recall with a smile, and with gratitude. If I had to single out one person who has blessed me in the music business (and there have been many), it would be Buddy Miller. Buddy gave me opportunity after opportunity in the Americana Music scene. It was because of those years of being a journeyman musician in his band and on his recordings that I became a member of Emmylou Harris’ band, which of course brought many opportunities as well.
While Buddy’s right up there with John Scofield and Clarence White in my Pantheon of guitar gods, it was his character and kindness which most impressed me. Gracious to nearly everyone, from his audience to the waitress serving us breakfast in a New Jersey diner, Buddy was a polite and decent guy to be around, never thinking his talent should set him apart from anyone else.
Yet, he was set apart. Beautiful opportunities to play and produce music came Buddy’s way, thus my way and anyone else who was in his band at the time.
My most memorable of these many events was when Buddy assembled a rhythm section to back the legendary Al Green for a live network television event with the Nashville Symphony. The assistant conductor had the task of bringing our little rock’n’soul combo together with the symphony. Being primarily self-trained, the idea of being in a setting with legitimate symphonic masters was intimidating to me, but I was up for the challenge, and excited to play “Take Me To The River” and “Love And Happiness” with Al Green.
We were in the center of the crescent shaped assembly of musicians, and I was literally eye to eye with the young conductor, a Korean man whose English wasn’t very good. (Although it was much better than my Korean.)
A few minutes into “Take Me To The River”, Al took a left turn and omitted the second bridge. Having played in clubs for years, the rhythm section followed him without issue. The symphony players, being in Nashville and perhaps used to pop music, seemed to roll with the punches as well. But the conductor was confused; he was the only one left on the page.
I was standing closer to him than anyone else on the bandstand. I realized he was hollering at me, but the music was so loud I couldn’t understand him. “What?”, I yelled back. Finally, I realised he was panicking, yelling “Where AH we?!”
If the chasm between myself and proper musicians was ever evident, it was in this moment. It didn’t occur to me that I was addressing The Maestro. I hollered, “Sixteen bars, man!” as if he were a fellow bluesman. My message was merely to state, “Play for sixteen more bars, and end it”, but the conductor thought I was saying that we were on Bar Sixteen of the musical score, which would be near the top of the song.
“What?!”, he cried, incredulously.
“Sixteen bars, man!”, thinking, come on, dude, surely you know how to do this.
Again, the terror stricken man yelled, “What?!”
At this point, eight bars must have surely past, and I yelled, “Just end it, man!” which the conductor indeed understood, his train not wrecking, but coming into the station unscathed.
That night, I got home and watched the tape of our performance on A&E network, and found that the performance actually sounded fine. I could even see the conductor and I communicating, but the panic that we felt in that moment didn’t show. We looked like we were having a calm conversation while performing before millions.
“How’s the family?”
“Let’s get a drink when we’re done here.”
The moment of panic looked nothing like it felt.
From that day forward on the road with Buddy, whenever there was a question about what direction our vehicle was heading in, someone would inevitably cry out, “Where AH we?”, knowing full well we’d get to wherever it was were going. Laughter doesn’t hurt when you feel lost.
Sometimes all a moment gives us is a question, “Where am I?”, signaling distress and disorientation. We know where we are going, but there doesn’t seem to be a way from Point A to Point B. Sometimes, all one can do is say “yes” to the faint image of a beckoning hand in the shadows. It has almost been a way of life for me, traveling down a bending road, with just enough information to get me to Point B, and then wait. Life is full of so many transitions that recalibrations are necessary.
It isn’t lost on me that the song we nearly wrecked was “Take Me To The River”, which contains a beautifully disoriented lyric, vacillating between pleading to a lost lover, and praying to God for wholeness and spiritual baptism.
Maybe Reverend Al was singing about everyone’s journey, bearing loss and losing bearings along the way, longing for the waters of redemption in a world that mars and breaks us.
If we’re lucky, like Mark Heard, we get to laugh on our way out.