Miller brings in hot hands for ‘Silver Strings’

From left: Bill Frisell, Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz, and Marc Ribot collaborated on ‘‘Buddy Miller’s The Majestic Silver Strings.’’ From left: Bill Frisell, Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz, and Marc Ribot collaborated on ‘‘Buddy Miller’s The Majestic Silver Strings.’’ (MICHAEL WILSON)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / March 1, 2011

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UPPER DARBY, Pa. — “Our desserts are unreal,’’ says Buddy Miller, urging a backstage visitor to the Tower Theatre to try some cookies from a nearby catering table laden with confectionery treats. “I’m going to be sampling everything.’’

That try-a-little-of-everything approach to life has served the Ohio-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter-musician-producer very well over the years. And it has resulted in an epic, award-winning resume that includes collaborations with a laundry list of great talents including Shawn Colvin, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, the Dixie Chicks, Lori McKenna, and Linda Ronstadt to name just a fraction. That body of work earned him the honor of Artist of the Decade by the bible of the Americana genre, No Depression.

“Slow decade,’’ says Miller with a self-deprecating laugh.

On this snowy night in Pennsylvania, the 58-year-old musician— looking healthy after a triple bypass operation in 2009 — has just finished the soundcheck for his current gig as the leader of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, the Led Zeppelin frontman’s latest foray into Americana. The project, which was recently nominated for a Grammy, grew out of Plant and Miller’s time touring with Alison Krauss for Plant and Krauss’s Grammy-winning “Raising Sand’’ album. Tonight, Miller is stealing a little pre-show time to discuss his latest collaborative endeavor, “Buddy Miller’s The Majestic Silver Strings.’’

Out today, the album features Miller and a trio of good friends and likewise stellar guitarists, jazz great Bill Frisell, steel pedal legend Greg Leisz, and sought-after eclectic stylist Marc Ribot, a longtime favorite of Costello, and who worked with Miller on Costello’s recent release “National Ransom.’’

“Bill and I had sort of been talking for a couple of years casually about doing something. We didn’t know exactly what,’’ says Miller, grabbing a bite as his bandmates dine nearby. But he felt this personnel would cook up something special. “Marc just approaches things so differently than anybody in the world. Bill is like the ocean or the desert, just calm and steady and beautiful and going on forever, and Marc is like the crazy jack-in-the-box.’’

Miller described the album to his prospective collaborators as a “twisted country record,’’ and that is an apt characterization of the finished product, which is mostly covers — including songs by Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, and Roger Miller — and was recorded in Buddy Miller’s house.

“Majestic’’ is an intoxicating mix of roots music including atmospheric country ballads — including the captivating, view-from-the-psych-ward Ribot original “Meds,’’ sung by Lee Ann Womack — and noir-ish, tangled ravers — like the warped take of Roger Miller’s “Dang Me,’’ sung by Chocolate Genius. Given the cast of characters, inventive guitar flights are the rule, not the exception, but Miller wanted to make sure it wasn’t a shred fest. “I wanted it to be a real record with guitars playing around’’ the vocals. Other guest vocalists include Colvin, Harris, and Miller’s singing-songwriting wife, Julie, who also co-penned one of the album’s originals.

The Majestic Silver Strings moniker came from Miller’s buddy and Band of Joy cohort Patty Griffin. (Miller produced her most recent album, the gospel Grammy winner “Downtown Church.’’) Leaning in from the next table Griffin explains the name came from brainstorming sessions over breakfast on the road. “Two words pop up around them because they’re seasoned, amazing players who look majestic and they all have silver hair, so I said the Silver Majestics,’’ says Griffin. Miller turned it around and a band was born.

Given Miller’s commitment to Plant — touring the States, Europe, and Russia over the next few months and maybe another album — and the demands on the time of his fellow Majestic Silver Strings, the group won’t be hitting the road anytime soon but he’s not complaining. As Plant enters the room to grab a pre-show bite, and Miller is asked if it’s ever still a bit surreal to be working with the rock legend, he laughs and says, “Yeah, every night.’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at