Sometimes I really hate that we have to categorize music. Stores and reviewers and streaming services will categorize Rhett Miller’s new album with Black Prairie alternately as indie-folk, alt-bluegrass, and country-pop. Let’s just put this album under “good music.” Working with Black Prairie, a bluegrass combo that includes members of The Decemberists, and with guest guitars on some songs by Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey of R.E.M., The Traveler is not quite the roots rock of his group The Old 97s, but not as pop as his previous solo albums. Again, categorization is difficult. Let’s just say that Miller has put together a dozen short stories in song form to create a memorable album that crosses many categories.
Sometimes he reminds me of Tom Petty (“Jules”), other times of Van Morrison (“My Little Disaster”). Sometimes we get The Decembrists vibe (“Fair Enough”) and other times, R.E.M. (“Kiss Me on the Fire Escape”). “Wanderlust” starts the album off up-tempo like a roller coaster. The first single, “Most in the Summertime” is a rollicking sing-along, backed by a light honky-tonk piano. On other tracks, the bluegrass influence of Black Prairie is more pronounced with either high energy fiddle or lovely violin playing front and center. Throughout, Miller’s vocals serve the songs by evoking the right emotions at the right times, from happiness, to heartbreak, to (more often than not) resignation. With such a diverse approach, it stands to reason that not all of the tracks hit for every listener. Things really show down with the Moody Blues-esque “Dreams vs. Waking Life” it never really catches hold for me. “Good Night” is similar, but the groove and backing vocals save it. That said, if you are a fan of any of artists mentioned, you owe it to yourself to give The Traveler a listen, and keep an eye out for Rhett Miller on tour this summer.