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The Majestic Silver Strings: Conversations with Buddy Miller, Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, and Marc Ribot

March 11, 2011 |  7:27 am

The-Majestic-Silver-Strings-500 The Majestic Silver Strings is the name of a new band and a new album, and both defy expectations in a number of ways.
It’s a guitarist supergroup of sorts, bringing together a disparate collection of four highly esteemed players: Americana-roots musician-producer-songwriter Buddy Miller, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, rock experimentalist Marc Ribot and steel guitar ace Greg Leisz.

The album is a collection of old country songs, and a couple of new ones, in which the players give testament to their shared reputations for tasteful musicality over flashy displays of instrumental virtuosity.

The focal point is highly imaginative new arrangements and performances of time-tested material including Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call,” the cowboy standard “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” Lefty Frizzell’s “That’s the Way Love Goes,” George Jones’ “Why Baby Why” and Roger Miller’s “Dang Me,” plus left-field choices such as Mickey & Sylvia’s “No Good Lover” and Ribot’s original “Meds.”

Pop & Hiss asked the participants how it’s possible to get four masters of their instruments into the same room — and the album was recorded essentially live in Miller’s home studio in Nashville — without culminating in a smoldering train wreck.

How did the Majestic Silver Strings come into being?

Bill Frisell: I’ve known Buddy for a number of years…. We kept running into each other, and there was a moment when I mentioned something to him years ago, like I had some sort of fantasy of him producing record with me, or doing country songs. It eventually evolved into this.

Buddy Miller: We had been talking, just casually, about maybe making a record together sometime. It just kind of occurred to me when I was working with Marc on another record: Why don’t we all do this together and do it now? Well, “now” turned out to be 10 months later.

Marc Ribot: Buddy proposed it, and I said, “Yeah!”

Greg Leisz: I’m not even really sure when I was invited. It wasn’t even clear to me until we were doing it that it was a band. I just love all the people who are involved and have worked with all of them before, so I said, “If you want me to be involved, I’ll be there.”

Among the four of you, you’ve played on sessions for the likes of Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, T Bone Burnett, Emmylou Harris and so many others, in addition to your various solo projects. A lot of people might expect lots of flashy guitar work from four such highly regarded players. Instead, it sounds like all of you were more interested in showing off the songs than instrumental technique — was that how the sessions felt?

Leisz: We’re all getting pretty old now [laughing]. People have less to prove.

Was there any issue of how, or whether, four guitar players could peacefully — and harmoniously — coexist?

Ribot: With any other three guitarists, I would have had major questions. But, because of both musicianship and personalities, I had no doubts whatsoever in this situation.

Frisell: For me, it just fell in without much thought. Nothing had to be figured out. I have to give Buddy credit: He set up this incredibly comfortable situation there in his house. He has a real talent for knowing how to prepare the situation so that when everybody gets there, that’s what it feels like.

Leisz: All these guys know how to find that slot in every situation they’re in.….Buddy really was key to allowing it to develop. He would find his role as the song would unfold. Marc often times would go to acoustic guitar, and depending on the context, people would just grab a certain role: Bill usually playing electric, Buddy playing baritone, and I was playing steel on everything. Instrument-wise I wasn’t having to wait till everybody else decided what they were going to do.

Miller: That’s one thing I was pretty sure of: Even though it was four guitar players, I knew it would be more of an underplaying fest. I like to say that it’s the sound of people listening to each other.

All these songs were recorded in Buddy’s home recording studio, with virtually everyone [including guest singers Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Lee Ann Womack, Shawn Colvin, Julie Miller and Chocolate Genius, a.k.a. Marc Anthony Thompson] all in the same room. Do you prefer recording live over the layer-by-layer assembly process that’s so common in the age of ProTools?

Ribot: Each method produces different results, both fine in context. I use both regularly. But live recording permits something, obviously, that overdubbing doesn’t: interaction.

Frisell: I respect people who have a vision and for them, the only way to realize their vision is by adding to things like a painting, like working on a canvas. You need to have more control over what colors are going on, and people have made really great records by doing it that way. It’s just more enjoyable, and speaks more to the spirit of the collaborative aspect of playing music when everyone is in a room together, playing together. You have that common shared experience. There’s really nothing like it.

Miller: I just love making records this way. You just get up there and sing and play it. It’s kind of how they used to do records. There’s nothing at all wrong with [building tracks piece by piece]. It’s all great if you come out with a great record.

The band has just one show booked this year. (Thursday, March 10 at the Grammy Museum.) It must have seemed going into a project with four people as busy as you guys are that a tour would be all but logistically impossible.

Miller: It’s funny, it was hard enough to put together the [recording] sessions. They were booked 10 months out…. But this seemed like something I really wanted to make just for the fun of it. I didn’t think about doing dates; it never occurred to me. We were doing a record, I just thought we’d be like a little band, so let’s book a gig at the end of a week. And that’s what we did. [The group played one concert in January 2010 at Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre on the final night of the week they’d made the album.] You forget that when you make a record, [people] want you to do gigs. There may be more in the future. You never know.

Leisz: Everybody knows the difficulty of doing that with this group of people. The problem is everybody books themselves far ahead. Especially Bill, because of the way the jazz world works….I can only hope that this generates enough interest, because I think everybody would love to get back together and do this some more.

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: The Majestic Silver Strings (l-r): Bill Frisell, Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz, and Marc Ribot. Credit: courtesy New West Records.