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The Majestic Silver Strings: A fresh spin on old country featuring Buddy Miller, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz

March 7, 2011 |  7:00 am

Majestic Silver Strings cover image

Two of the more idiosyncratic facets of the guitarist summit meeting of Buddy Miller, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot and Greg Leisz on “Buddy Miller’s The Majestic Silver Strings” album center on Ribot, the instrumentalist extraordinaire who has worked closely with Tom Waits for years, as well as Elvis Costello, T Bone Burnett and countless other musical tastemakers.

The two songs fall back-to-back on the album, which was released Tuesday: Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” and the old western classic “Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie,” alternately known as “The Dying Cowboy’s  Lament.”

Ribot came to Miller’s song while he was in the band Crackers in New York with Marc Anthony Thompson.  As performed by the composer, "Dang Me" was a jaunty ditty that reached the Top 10 of the pop chart in 1964. But on the album, Thompson makes a guest appearance and sings it as an ominous confession from a desperate man who’s almost literally at the end of his rope.

“I really started working professionally (sort of) as a musician in Maine in the late ‘70s, and having some country music in the set was de rigueur: We used to launch into ‘Folsom Prison’ or ‘Truck Driving Man’ whenever drunken lobster fishermen started to beat each other up--it was said to be therapeutic,” Ribot said in an e-mail exchange for a roundtable discussion with all four members of the Majestic Silver Strings that will be coming in Calendar on Tuesday.

“The funny thing is that at the time, I had never actually seen a country band perform--and I was only dimly aware of what a pedal steel did, so I tried to teach myself pedal-steel licks on guitar, with some interesting results ,” he said. “Later on I had a band in NYC with Marc Anthony Thompson (aka The Chocolate Genius) called Crackers in which we played harmelodic versions of country favorites and original compositions. I think Calvin Weston played drums with us on a couple of gigs.

“We never made a record, but his amazing version of Roger Miller’s ‘Dang Me’ (dang me, they oughta take a rope and hang me) is featured on the Majestic Silver Strings CD.”

It guides Miller’s lighthearted song into decidedly darker territory, much as Ribot’s arrangement of “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” does for a song rendered in so many old cowboy movies as a happy sing-along under a starry sky next to a blazing camp fire. As Ribot and his cohorts recast it, it becomes a haunting minor-key death-bed wish.

“Accidents--both happy and unhappy--seem to be part of my experience,” Ribot noted. “In the case of ‘The Dying Cowboy,’ producer, bass player and friend J.D. Foster knew of my interest in archival Americana, and lent me this copy of a 1930s printing of a book of ‘Cowboy Songs’.  I liked the lyrics to ‘Dying Cowboy’: kind of punk, you know? In fact, I’d heard the song before, so I read it through.

“I was surprised at the dirgy, depressing very non-cowboy chords of this version/arrangement,” he said. “Pretty soon I figured out that I was misreading it (chalk up another one for Harold Bloom).  In contemporary [musical] notation, a minus sign means minor chord; in the 30’s, it meant dominant 7th, a completely different vibe. But I liked it so much that I kept it minor, more or less threw out the original melody (ah, it’s good to be an American!)  and turned it into a kind of free-jazz cowboy raga.

“This was in 2003, and a few months later, I was on tour solo in Europe at exactly the week that the second Iraq war began,” Ribot recalled. “There were big protests against the war in almost every town I played. I don’t think most people here were quite aware of how [angry] most non-Americans were at the time.  Although I was of a similar opinion as most of the protesters, I didn’t feel comfortable turning a concert into a political harangue.  That old song about a young man dying on the desert said all I needed to say: ‘O bury me not, on the lone prairie.’”

The Majestic Silver Strings, which also includes bassist Dennis Crouch and percussionst Jay Bellerose, will make its only scheduled live appearance of 2011 on March 10 at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

--Randy Lewis