‘Tween Earth and Sky
Dark Shadow Recording
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
2015 has proven to be a breakout year for Becky Buller.
After a few years out of the spotlight—changing life circumstances will do that to an artist—Buller emerged leading her own outfit alongside her most unified recording project to date. When the annual International Bluegrass Music Association nominations were announced, Buller’s name was mentioned seven times. Alongside a nod for Bluegrass Broadcaster of the Year, Buller found herself up for Songwriter, Fiddle Player, Female Vocalist, and Emerging Artist of the Year. Capping these recognitions were two nominations for her historical performance of “Southern Flavor,” included here, as both Song and Recorded Event of the Year.
Pretty heady stuff for an artist taking her first steps out of the ‘sideman’ shadows as a bandleader.
‘Tween Earth and Sky was released late in 2014, so we’re more than a little tardy with this review. But given the accolades possibly coming Buller’s direction, and that it’s still getting lots of spins on bluegrass radio, it’s better late than never.
Buller has long been a fiddler of considerable repute within the bluegrass community, any she’s widely known from her years with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, from her brief tenure with Darin & Brooke Aldridge, and as a mainstay within the Daughters of Bluegrass amalgam. As a songwriter, she has contributed to more than a dozen projects. ‘Tween Earth and Sky is her third album when one includes the Here’s a Little Song collection recorded with Smith.
Without question, ‘Tween Earth and Sky is a very strong set. It is well-recorded and modern sounding, but there are certainly no shortage of ancient tones to be heard; “American Corner” contains more than a slice of old-world influence. Providing linkage to the essentials of bluegrass is the album’s feature track, a reworking of what might have been Bill Monroe’s last great tune, “Southern Flavor.” With lyrics added (with Monroe’s encouragement) by DeWayne Mize and Guy Stevenson, and brought to life with an all-Blue Grass Boys lineup including Roland White, Blake Williams, Buddy Spicher, and Peter Rowan, this one is a winner both on paper and in performance.
The original “Nothin’ To You” also had chart success, as did the less-pleasing “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers.” With a soaring lead vocal, “Nothin’ To You” may become a modern bluegrass classic; the terrific band, made up of folks named Bales, Block, Brock, Ickes, and a pair of Smiths (Kenny and Amanda), makes this one gallop with no little bit of a Union Station flavor. “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers” is a harmless song that is really quite enjoyable, until one realizes the composition lacks true dramatic tension: everything is told, nothing is shown. A minor quibble, perhaps.
Stronger—much stronger—are the Civil War love song “Amos & Sarah” and the sinister “Didn’t Die.” Both draw the listener in, and “Didn’t Die” especially gets one to contemplating; Darrell Scott adds some vocal darkness to this Buller song.
‘Tween Earth and Sky is that rare recording that benefits from having a wide range of musical friends and compatriots bringing their talents together to create an album that is quite disparate in its elements. Its appeal is at least in part due to how few of the songs sound as if that were cut within a singular vision. And, because of this unique quality—a dozen songs recorded with (mostly) different folks in different combinations—the listener is given so much to explore.
The necessary consistency comes from Buller’s voice and fiddle. She sings like a dream, with more than a little similarity to Dale Ann Bradley—there is power within her very pleasing vocals. The intensity that she brings to inspirational numbers such as “I Prayed For You” and “I Serve A God (Who Can Raise The Dead)” is truly impressive.
One may be remiss to overlook the contributions of some of these musicians. Tim O’Brien’s mandolin trills about a pair of songs, including the wistful “For A Lifetime,” which he sings with Buller. Producer Stephen Mougin appears on several tracks, singing and adding a bit of guitar. In addition to those previously mentioned—most of whom appear more than once—Sam Bush, the Aldridges, Mike Bub, Bryan Sutton, and Dale Ann Bradley are also featured.
Becky Buller has certainly made a statement with ‘Tween Earth and Sky. She’s long been ready to assume a more prominent place within the bluegrass industry, and this recording seals the deal.