And for Buddy Melton and Milan Miller, that sense of collaboration has proved bountiful over their many years bouncing ideas off each other, kicking around phrases and song structures, all in hopes of something sticking to the intent of whatever project the duo finds themselves trying to breath life into.
Melton is the lead singer and fiddler for acclaimed bluegrass act Balsam Range, a Haywood County group who has seemingly been awarded every honor in recent years from the International Bluegrass Music Association, including “Entertainer of the Year” in 2014 (Melton also won the IBMA for “Male Vocalist of the Year”). And when one peels back the curtain of Balsam Range, you are introduced to singer-songwriter Milan Miller, a Waynesville native who moved to Nashville in hopes of lyrical success, which he found, especially with his numerous songs covered by Balsam Range atop his two IBMA nominations for “Song of the Year.”
With their latest record, “Secrets, Dreams & Pretty Things,” Melton and Miller once again harness the magic that has existed between them since their early days with the band Jubal Foster. This spring, the album’s single “Adeline” hit number one on the Bluegrass Today charts.
It’s a brotherhood forged through the deep bonds solely unique to the sounds of bluegrass music. It’s also a collaboration between two musicians that began long before each found their own fruitful paths within the music industry.
Garret K. Woodward: How did your friendship with Milan come about?
Buddy Melton: Milan and I first met and really got to know each other musically at a local jam session that Kevin Duckett with Smoky Mountain Roasters in Waynesville hosted at his business weekly. That was in the mid-1990s. Shortly after that Milan moved to Nashville, but it wasn’t long until he called asking about my potential interest in being a part of a new group forming. That was the start of the group Jubal Foster and the beginning of many great friendships that have had a major influence in my musical career. And to see how those connections and friendships have developed, and had such positive impacts in my life, has been very rewarding.
GKW: What was the approach coming into this new project?
Milan Miller: In the age of digital downloads, it may be a bit old fashioned, but Buddy and I still subscribe to the idea of assembling a group of songs that fit together and complement each other. Some of these songs have been in our back pocket for a few years and then we built the rest of the project around the kinds of tunes that we thought were missing. For example, “Adeline” is something that I wrote for Buddy and his daughter, and is an extension of our friendship all these years. “Took Up Crying,” written by our friends Adam and Shannon Wright, is a song that we have both wanted to do for a long time and finally got the opportunity. Just before we started the recording process we realized that we still needed something really fast that would resonate with bluegrass fans who have more traditional tastes, so we wrote “Lost and Alone in this World” together. Throw in a gospel song, a waltz, a pretty ballad, and a twisted mountain murder story, and there you have it — a bluegrass album.
GKW: Why is it important to have that solo outlet from your “musical day job” of Balsam Range?
BM: As an artist it is important to grow creatively. Working within a band setting is very rewarding, and being a team player is something I really enjoy, but it also means reaching a common place where as doing a solo type projects gives you the opportunity to express your individuality.
GKW: What is your songwriting process like? Does it come in waves or do you sit down and get it done?
MM: Ideas for songs seem to come in waves, but my process for writing has become fairly methodical. These days, I seem to be doing more co-writing, so it is necessary to be able to show up at the appointment and get things done. I keep a journal of ideas, titles, and catch phrases as they pop into my head. When I start to actually write the song, I seem to always be walking the line between creativity and craft. Creativity and inspiration will always be where songs begin, but the difference between a mediocre song and a good song usually comes down to craft.
GKW: What are looking for in the songs you create? And how do you know when it’s done, or when to stop and let it be?
MM: I want to create some type of emotional reaction from the listener. Anything from making someone smile, cry, laugh, tap their foot, or consider a perspective that maybe hadn’t crossed their mind. Even if the topic is very serious, I want the chorus to be catchy and hopefully get stuck in the listener’s head. Knowing when a song is finished sometimes can be intangible. Even when I think that a song is finished, sometimes when I go to record the demo I realize that additional tweaks and/or editing are needed to make the song work. When I am writing a song by myself I can be pretty bad to over think things, so that is another reason that I enjoy co-writing. Having another person’s perspective is a great way to move things along.
GKW: With the music you two play — bluegrass — what about the genre, professionally and personally, sets it apart from other forms of music, performance and stage presence?
BM: I’m a fan of many, if not all, musical forms. But bluegrass has a true purity about it. The genre is filled with exceptionally talented people who perform with honesty — what you see and hear is genuine.
Editor’s Note: For more information on the new Buddy Melton & Milan Miller record, “Secrets, Dreams & Pretty Things,” visit www.meltonandmillermusic.com. The album is also available for purchase at Smoky Mountain Roasters in Waynesville.
Want to go?
Buddy Melton & Milan Miller will perform at PlottFest, which will be held June 18-19 at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds. Gates open at 9 a.m. Saturday and at noon on Sunday.
PlottFest is a benefit for Head Start of Haywood and Jackson counties. Celebrating the locally bred Plott Hound, the state dog of North Carolina, the festival combines an array of hound competitions, showcases and events. There will also be a full day of live music, featuring performances from Balsam Range, Blue Highway, Carolina Blue, Jonah Riddle & Carolina Express, Eddie Rose & Highway 40, Lonesome River Band, and many more. Children’s activities and food vendors will be onsite.
Tickets are $15 each for Saturday and Sunday or $25 for a two-day pass. Children under age 16 are free.