Bullish on Becky Bullerby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
Revolutionaries come in many guises. Becky Buller is a St. James native who could well be revolutionizing the sound of bluegrass. But she's best known for her songwriting. Buller plays with the band Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike. They're playing at a big bluegrass festival in Plymouth this weekend.
Owatonna, Minn. — Becky Buller's album "Little Bird" rode to the top of the bluegrass charts for most of 2004. Top bluegrass artists like Rhonda Vincent have recorded her songs.
But life on the road with a bluegrass band isn't glamorous. Buller and Liberty Pike's tour bus is parked outside a Famous Dave's in Owatonna on a dreary day. It's kind of depressing. But the wiry, red-headed, 27-year-old in a Kermit the frog T-shirt who opens the tour bus door is positively chirpy.
Buller leads the way inside where a few band members are noodling around on their instruments. Buller plays fiddle, viola, claw hammer banjo, and sings.
Her family had its own bluegrass band in southern Minnesota. And Buller says as a child she desperately wanted to play with her parents.
"The only thing they didn't have was a fiddle," she says. "And I bugged them for a year to get me lessons and they finally got me Suzuki violin method lessons. But my teacher knew that I really wanted to play fiddle, so she taught me some fiddle tunes on the side."
Buller grew up on tour. She says she and her family got on a bus every weekend to play at concerts and festivals.
"It was like going out on a holiday every weekend," she says. "It was like Christmas because we'd get Froot Loops. We'd get those little 10-pack boxes of sugary cereals, which they wouldn't let us have at home. That was just a big deal to me, and I was always just kind of sad when we'd come back after playing."
Buller has been writing songs almost as long as she's been playing bluegrass. She says she started by imitating the traditional tunes her family played, then branched out on her own. In time, her family began to perform some of her songs. In college, she won a couple prestigious songwriting awards.
By 23 she had left the family band and to join another musical family, Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike. Smith has been singing bluegrass with jazz influences for years. Bluegrass Now Magazine editor Wayne Blitzo says Buller is finding her way under the direction of Valerie Smith.
"Val is the key to her getting started," Blitzo says. "And there's almost a motherly kind of bond with them, and I think eventually Becky will go out on her own. But I think right now she feels real, real comfortable."
Blitzo says the thing that makes Buller's bluegrass so unique is her classical training. He says her instrumentation is richer and subtler than most bluegrass. There are also Smith's jazz influences.
Buller says she writes from her experiences. And she still gets excited when she finds something new.
"And I'll be like oh I'm so excited I wrote this new song," she exclaims. "And she'll sing it to me over the phone," Smith interjects. "And I do that to my mom a lot," Buller continues. "And my mom, she's a typical Minnesotan mom. And she'll say, well, it has potential. And I'll say what does that mean, do you like it?"
Valerie Smith's next album will be all gospel bluegrass. It will feature Buller's song, "Rain." Smith recorded three of Buller's songs for her last release. J. Gregory Heinike is Liberty Pike's manager. He says sometimes bluegrass traditionalists take Liberty Pike and Buller to task for their sound.
"A lot of bluegrass bands play a lot of the old traditional songs," he says. "If you go to a bluegrass festival you hear 'Cabin on the Hill' ten different times. They're all great songs, and they move people. But these kids plow their own field."
And they are kids -- Valerie Smith's kids. Smith says she chooses the band members she does because each of them have unique styles that add to her sound.
"All these folks in here, they're artists," she beams. "They could all front their own band and do their own thing. And there's not one of them that I haven't spotted either three or four years ago and knew about them, before they even knew about me probably, and thought, someday maybe I'll get to work with them."
Smith and Buller both say they aren't out to change the face of bluegrass, but if they do, so be it.
Becky Buller will perform with Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike at the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association's festival this weekend in Plymouth.
- All Things Considered, 03/02/2006, 4:52 p.m.