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Bosque Brown's The Real Deal

The first strains of Bosque Brown Plays Mara Lee Miller, now out on Burnt Toast Vinyl, sound far away — not just in space, but also in time, as if Mara Lee Miller's whispery voice and delicate guitar had emerged out of an old-fashioned radio, somehow tuned into a Depression-era broadcast. It is a sound untouched by the bustle and irony of modern life, as pure and natural and simple as meadow flowers, as unassumingly spiritual as a white-frame country church.

That separation from all that's good and bad about 21st century influences grew naturally out of a background that was rich in music but isolated from pop culture, Miller explained in a recent telephone interview. "I never listened to the radio much as a child," she said. "Most of the music I heard was basically in church. If you grow up in a town you don't really care for, you don't like the things that other people like in that town. It was mostly all church influence. Even when I was a teenager, I really didn't start listening to more artistic types of music until I was older, like in my teens."

When she talks, Mara Miller sounds a lot like her stage persona, Bosque Brown, named after a river that runs through her hometown of Stephenville, Texas. Her speaking voice is simple, honest and full of feeling, much like the voice that warms the melodies of her new record. She strings short, sturdy words together without embellishment, pausing without embarrassment as she gathers her thoughts. In conversation, as in her music, she is in no hurry to fill up the silence. There's a bit of a country twang to Ms. Miller's voice, and plain evidence of her religious faith. She can call a song "a blessing" without sounding awkward or preachy, and talk about the rapture, the fundamental Christian end-of-the-world scenario, as if it is as much a part of her life as weather.

Moreover, Miller is as sure of her music as an artist can be, yet curiously reticent, preferring that other people discover it on their own terms. It was her husband, after all, who slipped a cassette tape of demo songs to Damien Jurado at a show in Texas in 2002. "He talked about [giving my songs to Jurado], but I didn't really know if he would," Miller remembered. "My husband is basically the one that's pushed me to try to do something about it. I didn't know if I wanted to make this happen, I just wanted it to happen. I didn't want to give it to someone and say, 'Oh, tell me what you think.'"

Jurado wrote back immediately by email, likening Miller's voice to "the heartache of Kitty Wells and the lonesome howl of Robert Johnson," and ultimately helping her songs find a home. Having Jurado involved was incredibly helpful, Miller said: "It gave us credibility and everything. He made it really easy for me. He just sent it to labels."

One of these labels was Philadelphia-based Burnt Toast Vinyl, which released Jurado's Four Songs EP in 2001 and quickly entered negotiations for Miller's first record. Jurado also introduced Miller to engineer/producer Eric Fisher, who recorded Bosque Brown Plays Mara Lee Miller in Seattle. The album was mastered by David Bazan of Pedro the Lion.

The resulting CD glows with warmth and intimacy, adding flourishes like pedal steel and banjo to Miller's lovely voice, but never overwhelming it. Her songs are personal and deeply felt, yet, she hopes, they may have resonance for listeners she's never met. "I think I always knew that I would like to share my music one day," she said. "I kind of wanted to write things that really were honest and personal, so that maybe somebody else who felt the same way, maybe that could bless them in that way. So it is weird that people I don't know are listening to them, but it makes sense in a way, too."

It is impossible to understand Mara Lee Miller's music without coming to grips with her background, growing up in an isolated, small town, in a deeply religious family. She started singing in church as a young girl, along with her mother and a sister, Jan Kay, who now sometimes accompanies her in live performances. Yet, though her family was committed to the church, they also knew how to have fun. "My mother would play the piano in the morning and sometimes we'd all play in the evening," remembers Miller. "If we'd have relatives over... we'd usually put on a little show. My mom would play, and then I had an aunt who was a missionary, so a lot of times, we couldn't make long-distance phone calls. So my mom would make a tape and we would sing on the tape. It was a very musical background."

Miller's strict religious background put much of contemporary culture out of bounds, so the family would rent old musical videos for entertainment, she said. "I grew up hearing musicals like Oklahoma and Yankee Doodle Dandy and Singing in the Rain — and kind of ended up more singing songs like that as a kid than maybe other songs that all kids start singing."

Yet while Miller's family life may have been happy, she felt isolated among her school peers. Her song, "Fine Lines," for instance, begins "12th grade and the girls are thin/ Discussing heavy skin/ I want a boyfriend/ Here they walk down halls/ Dressed in skin and bone/ I wear my mound of clothes."

"I definitely was an outsider when I was in high school," Miller said. "I knew that I was interested in art, more so than music in high school. I really enjoyed drawing, but it was really hard because there wasn't much art out here. There weren't very many people that did art at my school. Most people were in sports. Athletics, things like that."

As she reached her late teens, Miller began seeking out more artistic experiences, driving with her sister to nearby Fort Worth to hear music. She left Stephenville to study art at the University of Texas at Denton, again finding herself isolated and lonely and again finding consolation in music. "I didn't have a TV for a while and I didn't know anyone," she remembered. "I had a guitar, and I had known how to play it before, but I never really thought about writing songs. I had a lot of time on my hands. I was kind of going through a lot. So I just started to write songs."

For a long time, Miller shared these songs only with friends and family, but now, through her new album, they are reaching out to a wider world of admirers. She is only now beginning to perform in public, with a small band of friends and family. Yet, she said, whatever happens with the album and her music, her songs will always be rooted in the tiny, tightly connected community she came from. "I still talk to most of the same people I've known all my life," she admitted. "If you grow up in a small town, where everybody knows everybody, where everybody knows what everybody does, even if you don't like the person, you still keep up with what they're doing. Everything kind of still stays the same. You just get older."

Moreover, these songs will continue to reflect her spiritual worldview, shaped by the Baptist church she grew up in and refined by the more fundamental one she currently belongs to. The newest song on Bosque Brown is "Israel," a vivid evocation of end-of-days imagery. "Learning about Israel was a big part of my spiritual experience," she said. "It opened my eyes to the idea that the Bible is a living work, something that I can see continuing in present times."

The gorgeous, minor-key "Fire Fight," too, is built on strong Christian images. "That song is basically about spiritual warfare," Miller explained. "It's about being alone and meeting someone. Of course, it's about the Lord, calling to him, and him taking care of me through all sorts of trials."

Miller says that she's continuing to create new songs, and much as before, simply writes what comes from inside. "I hope I grow as a songwriter and I hope it's better, but I don't really know if it will be a lot different than the first record," she said. "I just kind of do whatever comes." — Jennifer Kelly [Wednesday, July 27, 2005]

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