In bluegrass, it’s not enough to be good at just one thing. Even two things might not quite cut it.
Becky Buller – who now makes her living singing, playing fiddle and writing songs (yes, that’s three things) – understood that early on. When she decided she wanted to sing in her parents’ bluegrass band, she noted their lack of a fiddle player and got to work learning the instrument because she knew it’d be a sure ticket onstage.
That breadth of talent served her well then and now, supporting a career that’s put her in more bands and given her more album credits and more awards than seems possible for someone who’s only 37.
“Usually the economics of a bluegrass band is that everybody plays everything, everybody can sing lead, everybody can sing all the parts, and they can all drive the bus and work on the bus and do graphic design and be their own publicist and all that stuff,” Buller said. “You gotta be ambidextrous if you play bluegrass music!”
Buller’s particular brand of bluegrass is the product of a lifetime of listening to and learning music from a variety of genres. When she started learning piano at age 5, and then later when her fiddle teacher’s approach combined ear training with more formal music theory, classical techniques provided a foundation she still uses today, she said.
“All that wonderful technique from classical music, I’ve got all of that in my toolkit, and I’m just really grateful for that,” said Buller, who played in her school orchestra as well as her parents’ band.
At some point, though, she wanted to switch to the school band. Her parents weren’t ready to indulge her whim for an oboe, but they finally said, “Here, have some drumsticks,” she recalled, and she remained a percussionist throughout middle school and high school. She also played bass in the school jazz band and sang in the choir.
“Just about anything musical I could do in high school, I was there,” she said.
But when all those musical passions boil down, bluegrass is the strongest flavor. Buller’s songs, which she’s been writing since middle school, tell stories of people and places, carried along by energetic vocals, fiery instrumentals and well-chosen guest musicians who add just the right amount of shine. They appear on her own albums – three to date, including 2014’s “’Tween Earth and Sky” – and have been recorded by others, including Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent and Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out.
Buller feels that her songs have changed over the years, just like a person does, adding souvenirs from a well-traveled road.
“There are subjects I feel like I can approach now because I’m in a different season in life,” she said. “I’m a mom, and now I’m heading up a band. So it’s a little bit different. We’re definitely the sum of our influences. I always tell my writing workshops and stuff: You are what you eat. ... Whatever you’ve been internalizing is what’s going to come out. It’s good to listen to lots and lots of different kinds of music. That’s going to kind of ferment in you and then come out as your own thing, your own style.”
After spending much of her career as part of a band, including long stints with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike and then Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Buller found inspiration – and necessity – for stepping out as frontwoman when her daughter, now 3, started walking.
“I needed to make my own schedule,” she said, “so I couldn’t avoid being a band leader any longer.”
A few years into fronting the Becky Buller Band, Buller’s not about to retreat: “It’s stressful, but it’s good. I’m enjoying it so much.”
In the weeks before her Wide Open Bluegrass performance, Buller was hard at work on a new album slated for next spring. She recently released the single “Phoenix Arise,” the only cover song that will appear on the new album. Sales of the song, written by Mark Simos and Lisa Aschmann, are raising money to support the town of Madelia, Minn., near where Buller grew up, which had much of its downtown destroyed by a fire last winter.
The business side of World of Bluegrass will likely keep Buller just as busy as performing during her time in Raleigh. As chair of the songwriter committee for the International Bluegrass Music Association (a term that’s ending this year), she’s helped put together many of the business conference panels aimed at helping songwriters “up their game.”
Plus, with publicity being one of those many jobs she packs into her bluegrass toolkit, she may also have to get to work updating her bio. She’s nominated for IBMA awards for female vocalist, fiddle player and gospel recorded performance, after having won songwriter, emerging artist and recorded event honors last year.
“This happens to my heroes,” she said, considering her fellow nominees and past winners. “I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head around it. But I’m very, very grateful and excited.”
What: Becky Buller Band as part of Wide Open Bluegrass with Del McCoury Band, Steep Canyon Rangers and others.
When: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday. Becky Buller Band at 11 a.m.
Where: Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh
Songs that stand out
“Nothin’ To You,” from Buller’s “ ’Tween Earth and Sky” album in 2014.
“Southern Flavor.” Buller’s all-star project to complete this unfinished Bill Monroe composition was named the 2015 IBMA Recorded Event Of The Year.