Buddy Miller has done a lot in the music business. He's been a Nashville session player, a record producer, the musical director for the frothy, but entertaining, "Nashville" TV show. He does a weekly satellite radio with the talented, but dyspeptic, Jim Lauderdale.
For the last few years, Miller has been a featured artist on one of a proliferating series of mid-Winter music cruises. Miller goes on the Cayamo cruise, generally in late January. The "Cayamo Sessions At Sea" release is a grab bag of selections from the boat in 2014 and 2015, recorded in one of the ship's lounges with mobile recording equipment Miller brought along.
The production quality is top-rank, despite its ocean-going provenance. These cuts do not have a "captured live" flavor, probably because Miller's recording setup was separate from the stage shows on the cruises. Nonetheless, Miller took good advantage of his proximity to his "friends." Miller has a polished, neo-country sound. It's not pop country, necessarily, and eschews the synthesized-banjo sound in favor of a lap steel. And, Miller knows his roots; his music tips a Stetson to country and western music whilst clearing a trail for harder-edged, songwriter-driven country music.
The "Friends" that Miller includes are the real deal. Doubtless enticed with a free cruise, they ended up singing some beauties with Miller and his band. There are some missed targets among Miller's scattershot selections, but the hits are tasty.
Miller combines with The Lone Bellow and their female lead, Kanene Pipkin (with an assist from Brandi Carlisle) for a soulful rendering of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery." It's as good as it gets. True to his country and western roots, he joins with the estimable Elizabeth Cook on "If Teardrops Were Pennies" (made popular by Dolly Parton and Porter Waggoner during their long run as a duo act). In the same vein, Miller and Lee Ann Womack tackle the Twitty/Lynn duet "After the Fire Is Gone" with great heart.
Kris Kristofferson offers his latest dissolute version of "Sunday Morning Coming Down" with lesser effect. Shawn Colvin, with whom Miller toured for years, takes on "Wild Horses" with striking disinterest.
These cases of misapplied tribute are outweighed by gems: Richard Thomson nicely captures Hank Williams' "Wedding Bells." Not to be outdone, Lucinda Williams, in full throat, sings Gram Parsons' iconic "Hickory Wind" with just the right mix of pathos and grit. One expects nothing less from Williams.
This is a collection to be savored, both for its musicianship and its respect for the genre. It's good to have friends.