Becky Buller – photo by Shelly Swanger
Becky Buller is an exceptional singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Hailing from St. James, Minnesota, she’s contributed songs to albums by a host of notable names, among them Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, The Infamous Stringdusters, and The Travelin’ McCourys, among the many. She’s also the recipient of no less than ten IBMA awards, including wins for the 2020 Song Of The Year (for Chicago Barn Dance, co-written with Missy Raines and Alison Brown), the 2020 Collaborative Recording for The Barber’s Fiddle, her 2016 Fiddler and Female Vocalist Awards, and the 2018 Best Gospel Recorded Performance for the song, Speakin’ To That Mountain.
With three albums to her credit, including Distance And Time, a nominee for the 2021 IBMA Album Of The Year, she also devotes her time to teaching fiddle, singing, and songwriting at workshops and camps around the world, a practice she’s pursued for the past 20 years. In addition, she currently serves on the board of the IBMA Foundation.
We caught up with Buller at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival which was held over this past Labor Day weekend, and took the opportunity to hear insights not only about her career, but the continuing popularity of bluegrass itself.
Bluegrass Today: This is the first Earl Scruggs Music Festival. How did you come to be involved?
Becky Buller: They contacted our booking agent, and offered us a slot on the festival. It’s just such a huge honor to be part of this inaugural event, one that’s honoring Earl Scruggs and his music and his legacy, his life.
Nevertheless, you have quite a storied career yourself with all the honors that you’ve won. When you’ve attained that level of success, is it almost like, “Well, okay, now I’ve got to follow it up. Now, I’ve got to reach those heights again.” Is it intimidating at all?
Absolutely. Yes. It’s very intimidating. I feel like I’m just kind of now getting to the point where I’m enjoying what I want to be able to enjoy. But I’m also still trying to keep up, and so I want to continue to do good. I want to continue putting out music that people enjoy. I’m really grateful for the places we’ve been able to play and the people we’ve been able to play with. Jerry Douglas got on stage with us today, and he joined me on the song, Woodstock. We performed that today for the first time ever together… live and in person. And that was just such a thrill. Never in my wildest dreams, would I have imagined that I would get to do that. I think about being a kid growing up in Minnesota, learning how to play bluegrass music, and I just wonder what the older me would tell that kid. Maybe something like, “You have no idea where you’re gonna end up.”
Did you ever have any idea that your love of this genre would lead you to become a successful musician? And play with such wonderful people?
No, no, I just sort of did it all along. I’ve played music. I’ve written music. I’ve just done it because it’s just who I am and what I do. And songwriting is artistry, but it’s also therapy and my way of dealing with what’s going on around me… trying to dig into it, trying to understand the world and to interpret it. I just I can’t imagine doing anything else.
You did some interesting covers today. Woodstock has been covered a number of times, but your version was definitely unique. You just sort of remade and it was definitely distinctive. And your version of James Taylor’s Millworker was exceptional.
Yeah. It’s weird, because James actually wrote that from a woman’s perspective. So he’s taking on that character as this widowed mother, who has to work in the mills to make ends meet. it was part of a musical called Worker that Studs Terkel wrote. Bluegrass is really so flexible, that it allows you to take on these classic standards and redo them, refine them, remake them in the bluegrass genre. And it seems that’s another way that bluegrass is connecting with a different audience than it did originally.
Bluegrass has this history that goes back decades, and yet it’s still at the crest of its popularity. It’s become this populist movement, as evidenced by these festivals and the bands that are able to break the boundaries between the traditional and the contemporary. So what are your thoughts as to how bluegrass has maintained its stature, while also expanding its appeal into more modern realms. If you were to ask people about bluegrass 30 or 40 years ago, they might have thought about a bunch of pickers up in the mountains sitting on the front porch. It’s so much broader than that. Why has it been able to sustain that popularity?
At its core, it’s music by real people about real people. That’s evergreen, and it’s something that resonates with everybody from everywhere. And it’s very accessible in that in its basic form, it’s often just two chords, three chords. There are a lot of simple songs that are easy for people to access, write, and jam on. If you’re a beginning player, you can just get in there and, and pick those easy songs and then grow from there. And that’s the thing about bluegrass music that I think is very interesting, and much different from other genres. Oftentimes, the fans are also musicians as well, And so they have a different sort of investment in the music than with other genres.
There’s also a great deal of variety as well.
I love a festival like, like Earl Scruggs fest, where you have such a variety of music and yet there’s a thread running through where it all comes back to Earl Scruggs. You have a group like ours that’s more on the contemporary side of bluegrass music. Last night you had Alison Brown and she takes it into the realm of jazz, and you had the the Earls of Leicester and Béla Fleck and Bluegrass Heart. So I love that all these different branches of the bluegrass family tree have been represented at this events. You have other bluegrass events that are staying strictly straight ahead traditional bluegrass, but a lot of those are starting to atrophy. And that’s unfortunate, because I grew up going to festivals like that, and I have a very special place in my heart for those kinds of festivals. But for some reason, the young people aren’t stepping up in the leadership roles to help those festivals continue. And I think that’s a sad thing. But then other festivals are growing. So it’s kind of always ebbing and flowing. I love that bluegrass music has a following just about anywhere you go in the world.
So what’s ahead for you?
We have a Christmas album about to drop on December 2.
How do you toe the line between staying true to tradition, but also adding contemporary appeal, and more importantly, adding your own voice and making yourself distinctive?
I’m very selfish. I play when I like to play and hope that the audience likes to hear it. And the covers that we do are generally songs that I’ve grown up singing, or I’ve learned along the way. A lot of what we do are songs that I’ve written, which are influenced by every branch of the bluegrass family tree. I love the Stanley Brothers and Jim and Jesse. That’s what I grew up on. And then of course I love Alison Krauss and Lonesome River Band. I love, love, love that. When I heard that stuff, it really hooked me and made me a lifer in bluegrass music. And then I went on to Allison Brown and New Grass Revival. I didn’t hear New Grass Revival and Sam Bush until I got to college. It changed my life. So we’re the sum of our influences.
I think all of that is reflected in the music that I make with the band, whether it’s a song that I’ve written or a cover that I’ve chosen. Plus, we’re all over social media. If you go to my website, Beckybuller.com, you can see all out social media stuff and our YouTube videos. We try to keep everything really light and fun, whether you see us on stage or you are interacting with us online. We want you to walk away just refreshed and rejuvenated. We just want to give you an escape from reality for a little while. And hopefully once we’ve done that, you’re able to go out and be light in life and share hope and healing with your friends and your family community in the world.
Wow. Are you thinking of running for office? With thoughts like those, you ought to consider it.
Thanks, but I think I’ll just stick to the fiddle.