critic’s pick 257

Longtime Americana pals Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale contradict themselves within the very first line from their splendid new collaborative country album, Buddy and Jim.

The line comes from I Lost My Job Loving You, a wily confessional with a slightly swampy undertow: “It’s not always fun and games.”

Wanna bet?

Buddy and Jim is pretty much all fun and games, a mix of country traditionalism filtered through two of Nashville’s keenest roots-music intellects. Together, they inject a set of original works and scholarly chosen covers with a sense of soul and sass that is split between playfully dark instrumental mischief and the kinds of harmonies that come only from complete artistic simpatico. No, they’re not brothers, but Miller and Lauderdale operate very much as kindred spirits here.

Take, for instance, The Train That Carried My Gal From Town, a playful hoedown built around a feisty Stuart Duncan fiddle lick that sounds about 100 years old. Fittingly, the tune dates back to about 1926 and matches a sense of traditional country heartbreak with a playful recklessness that is mirrored in both the lyrics (“I wish to the lord that the train would wreck, kill the engineer, break the fireman’s neck”) and harmonies that bounce about with a tone that is more than a little devilish.

Equally bleak and feisty is Lauderdale’s Vampire Girl, which Miller illuminates with the rhythm of a rolling boxcar and a Western desert serenade of pedal-steel guitar. It all flies in the face of Lauderdale’s saga of a temptress who leaves behind more stolen souls than broken hearts.

For pure rootsy appeal, nothing beats the loose-limbed cover of The Mississippi Sheiks’ Lonely One in This Town, which Miller and Lauderdale transform into a back-porch hootenanny full of vigorous but unvarnished harmonies and a delightfully spare arrangement highlighted by the spirited trash can-like clatter of drummer Marco Giovino (Miller’s mate in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy).

There isn’t a single song on Buddy and Jim that doesn’t delight, from Julie Miller’s graceful It Hurts Me (the album’s most straight-faced and elegantly stoic moment) to the big-beat Cajun recasting of Down South in New Orleans to the mash-up of vintage country and R&B on Joe Tex’s I Want to Do Everything For You.

But the true kicker is a blast of swing-savvy roots glee by way of the 1959 Jimmy McCrackin hit The Wobble, in which vocal trade-offs sideswipe fuzzy guitar fills and delightfully cheesy organ riffs. Sounds like fun and games aplenty to me.

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