By David Knox
Sometimes it’s the things closest to home you don’t appreciate as much as you should.
We’re not saying Becky Buller of Manchester isn’t appreciated by those who’ve heard her play fiddle or hear her sing.
But Buller, bluegrass musician extraordinaire, is a Middle Tennessee treasure that in our opinion should be even more appreciated. She is a bona fide bluegrass star.
“We don’t get to play around home very often,” Buller said, “because there’s so much great music here.”
She has played 46 of the 50 states, she thinks – all but Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont and Louisiana, of all places — and also internationally, to wide acclaim from fans and critics alike.
She’s coming off an appearance with her side project, the all-female bluegrass super-group The First Ladies Of Bluegrass, at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival.
“It was insane,” she said. “That was a pretty big deal.”
Just this month, she was nominated for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2019 Fiddler of the Year Award. If she wins, the trophy can go alongside the other eight IBMA awards she’s already won. When she won the 2016 Fiddler of the Year, she was the first female to ever do so.
In 2016, she became the first person to win IBMA instrumental and vocal awards in the same year. First. Person. Ever.
As if that weren’t enough, she’s a gifted songwriter – in fact, that’s how she broke through – penning or co-writing songs for Ricky Skaggs (“Music To My Ears”), Rhonda Vincent (“Fishers of Men”), Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver (“Be Living”), Josh Williams (“You Love Me Today”), Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out (“My Angeline,” “Rest My Weary Feet,” and “Cottontown”), The Infamous Stringdusters (“Freedom”) and The Travelin’ McCourys (“Shaker”). She’s a Grammy Award winning songwriter for placing those last two on Grammy-winning albums.
In 2018, she topped all artists with eight IBMA nominations.
For those who haven’t ever heard of her, much less heard her music, Saturday’s performance with her top-flight band will be a treat, one of those can’t-miss gems you might not know of at a music festival.
A Minnesota native, she first made her mark winning the Minnesota Old Time Fiddle Championship in 1996 at the age of 17. She played fiddle with her parents and another couple in the group Prairie Grass. She also studied classical violin.
But fiddle was her true love.
She came South after hearing about East Tennessee State’s acclaimed Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music program and graduated in 2001 with a public relations degree. Also that year, Buller’s songwriting nabbed a first-place finish in the bluegrass category of the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in Wilksboro, NC.
She lived in the Nashville area for a time, met musician Jeff Haley of Manchester, got married and settled there.
Before going out on her own in 2015, she played on the road with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike for 10 years and then two years with Darin & Brooke Aldridge.
She’s released four albums, the latest being 2018’s Crepe Paper Heart, which featured that year’s IBMA Gospel Recorded Performance Of The Year, “Speakin’ To That Mountain,” co-written with Jeff Hyde of the Eric Church Band. Bluegrass Today magazine named Crepe Paper Heart the No. 1 Bluegrass album of the year.
As talented as she is as fiddler and vocalist, it might be her songwriting that sets her apart.
“Songwriting is my way of working through the world. It’s my therapy. When I don’t have time to write when things are too busy, I get really twitchy. I really have to fight it and find that quiet place to write.
“I do love to write and I do love telling stories. And to me it’s like a puzzle because you only have so much space. I love the challenge of saying a lot with just a few words. And of course what you don’t say also speaks volumes.”
Writing since she was in high school, she cites the usual bluegrass suspects as inspiration but she’s all over the board with other influences, including James Taylor and Simon and Garfunkel. In fact, the band had played two Simon and Garfunkel songs – “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” a deep cut from the Bridge Over Troubled Water album and another lesser-known S&G song, “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” which the band does a very faithful rendition of, replete with the final “Ha!” at the end of the song.
Another early influence was Christian artist Annie Herring, and Buller’s faith informs several of her songs.
“I’m a Christ-follower. That world view makes the most sense to me and the more I study and dig in, the more sense it makes to me. And so that’s the main focus of my life so of course it comes out in my music.
“I have to write songs around Bible verses to remember them. It’s a way of me sharing my faith. There are just so many great stories in the Bible.”
The recording industry has changed, but bluegrass fans still buy albums, Buller said, so a new Becky Buller Band release is in the works. “We were in the studio last weekend and we are working toward another album,” Buller said, which will be her third release for Dark Shadow. “We’ve got four songs in the can and one of them is already done and the other three have just a few things to fix on them. We’ve got some more sessions at the top of November.” There will be one cover, but mostly it’ll be Buller compositions or co-writes.
Her “side project,” The First Ladies Of Bluegrass includes all the first women to win in their respective categories at the IBMA awards: Alison Brown (banjo, 1991); Buller (fiddle, 2016); Sierra Hull (mandolin, 2016); Missy Raines (bass, 1998); Molly Tuttle (guitar, 2017). They walked away with the 2018 IBMA Recorded Event Of The Year award for their work on “Swept Away.”
In the last couple years, despite their own careers, they’ve been able to work together – working on Raines’ album, playing Newport, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado in late June (with Brandi Carlile, Bonnie Paine of Elephant Revival, and Jewel, of all people, joining in). They performed “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” the old Eurythmics/Aretha Franklin song.
Having Jewel join them, Buller said, “sent the 18-year-old me totally flipping out because I was a big fan of her music in high school.” And Paine, Buller said, “is the best washboard player I’ve ever heard and an incredible singer.”
But it was Carlile who told Buller and the “Ladies” that she’d be playing Newport. “She said, ‘You guys, I’m doing a special all-woman set at the Newport Folk Festival. It’s their 60th year and they have never had an all-female collaboration headliner – and don’t tell anyone this, but Dolly Parton is going to be there.’
“And the stars aligned and amazingly enough we were all able to be there, and that was insane. We all came out at the end and sang ‘Nine to Five’ with her. My 6-year-old daughter, Romy, was along with me and I scooped her up and said ‘You gotta do this.’ And at the end of the set I set Romy down and Dolly came scooting through to get off the stage before everyone else did and she took the time to stop and hug Romy … and so for the last several weeks I’ve been going around the house going, ‘Dolly Parton hugged my baby.’”