Bosque Brown's Mara Lee Miller Expands Her Vision While Sticking Close to Home
"Over Whiskey Flats and I am on my way, Lord let me fly/The Bosque flows and it runs dry/Hold me down, that's where I will die."
Google the unincorporated community of Whiskey Flats, Texas, and the first thing you'll find is an AP story on a man who attempted to break a Guinness world record by stuffing the tails of nine live rattlesnakes in his mouth.
"I think I could do 12 or 13," the man said at the time. "But probably no more. My mouth is only so big."
Judging by her song "Whiskey Flats," however, the place has a much deeper meaning for Bosque Brown's Mara Lee Miller—even if the bizarre art of snake wrangling isn't too far removed from her band's strange, yet timeless, Americana aesthetic.
"I wrote that song at a time when I was still living in Stephenville," says Miller, referring to her isolated hometown, a community of 15,000, located roughly halfway between Fort Worth and Abilene. "So [it] was always really significant to me, because as soon as I hit Whiskey Flats, I knew I was 20 minutes from Fort Worth, which was freedom..."
This sense of freedom and the accompanying regret that often come with leaving home are predominant themes on Miller's sophomore record, titled simply, Baby. Ask Miller about her first gig and it's easy to see why she left her hometown in the first place. "It was at a hairdressing place that was also a coffee shop," Miller says. "It's kinda gross. It was, at the time, the coolest place in Stephenville."
As she puts it on one track: "Living in this town is what I'm dying from."
But for every lyrical indictment of small-town living, Baby also sees a moment where Miller makes peace with her hometown. The sweetly hopeful biblical references of "White Dove" and "Oh River"—which likens the sandy banks of the band's namesake Bosque River to heaven's celestial shore—can't help but belie the old-time religion of Miller's rural upbringing, while "Went Walking" longs for the comforting presence of home and family ("Went walking down the road with my sister/Mother, father and dog/Now been gone, been gone from home/To the city").
Recorded in Denton by The Baptist Generals' Chris Flemmons, Baby is the first Bosque Brown album to feature Miller's own band, which formed largely after the completion of her debut. The new record sees the group subtly expanding on its live sound with Flemmons' guidance, scaling back Miller's customary finger-picked acoustic guitar on several songs to feature the understated accompaniment of her bandmates—drummer Winston Chapman, guitarist Jeremy Buller, pedal steel player (and husband) Ryan Miller and, perhaps most notably, Miller's sister Gina Milligan, whose dramatic piano provides the perfect counterpoint to Miller's jazzy Texas drawl.
"Chris had a lot to do with that," Miller explains. "[He] approached me several years ago telling me he'd like to do a record. His grandparents used to live out in Stephenville, so we kind of had a connection...and I really like all of The Baptist Generals' stuff, of course. I knew Chris would put his heart into it, and I wanted to work with someone who knew me and knew about what I wanted to do. Not just, like, walk into a studio and not know the person..."
According to Miller, Flemmons played "a major producing role" in the process of making the record, crafting arrangements and forcing the band outside of its comfort zone, as well as adding his own musical touches here and there, from atmospheric percussion to the otherworldly, "Telstar"-esque organ—a sonic cameo by the infamous Stephenville UFO perhaps—that permeates "So Loud."
"We would just sit in a room and play one song all day until he walked in and said, 'Yep, that sounds right,'" Miller says. "And I let him do it. I know a lot of musicians probably wouldn't want to do that—they want to have more of a say-so. But I felt we needed someone to come in and really help us."
Obviously, such attention to detail took quite some time—the band recorded mostly on spare weekends, and Flemmons took a good 10 months to complete post-production work—which is one of many factors that have kept Bosque Brown from playing live over the past two years, despite the accolades that accompanied the release of Miller's 2005 debut and the burgeoning local fan base that followed.
"I didn't want to be double-minded about the thing," says Miller. "We were recording. We all have very busy lives. I work a job. My sister has a kid now; Winston is in Austin now. And I really wasn't ready to play. I think when we stopped playing, I was just tired of it and tired of those songs, and I just couldn't play the same way we were playing anymore. I didn't want to come back and play the way we used to play or play solo, because we really didn't know exactly what it was gonna sound like until Chris was done."
Luckily, all that waiting has paid off. Baby's sonic composition perfectly mirrors Miller's lyrical content, with Bosque Brown embracing the freedom to experiment while continuing to honor its roots: Miller's enduring country melodies; her sparse, moving poetry; that dusky, unforgettable voice.
If there's any justice in the world, the citizens and snake handlers of Stephenville, Whiskey Flats and all points in between should be damned proud of this Baby—even if Miller had to leave them behind to make her mark. As she puts it on one of the album's best tracks, the bouncy, girl-group inspired "This Town":
"I'm rising to something new/The lights I drove through were all that I knew/Of this town/What comes around/Don't always come back."
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