Featured Music: Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Before Mara Lee Miller had even played a live show, she was recording a c.d. for a beloved indie label. She plays SXSW this weekend.
American Gothic

Moody alt-country singer-songwriter Mara Lee Miller (a.k.a. Bosque Brown) wrings poetry out of rural noir.


Mara Lee Miller, the 25-year-old Fort Worth singer-songwriter who goes by the name of Bosque Browne (as in the Texas county of “boss-key”), recently received fresh inspiration from a longtime music idol of hers who she didn’t know had anything left to give: the late, great, talented but tragic Townes Van Zandt. Last weekend, Miller and her husband caught the acclaimed documentary about Van Zandt, Be Here To Love Me, at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and although she says she owns every piece of music that’s been released since the man’s death in 1997, a few things fell into place for her while watching the movie.

“It was hard to see him treat the people who loved him the way he did,” Miller said of the famously troubled troubadour and drifter who basically killed himself with drink. “But I suddenly understood why there’s so much [Van Zandt] music of such different quality out there in stores, because he’d lost ownership of his own songs. Anybody can release anything they want, whether he’d have wanted them to or not.

“But his main cares weren’t for fame and money,” she continued. “He only sang songs that meant something to him. You can’t say that about a lot of people.”

Likewise, there aren’t a lot of musicians out there to whom Bosque Brown can be easily compared, at least not in the year 2006. You’d have to go back about 70 years, to members of the Carter family dynasty and stark-souled Appalachian artists to approximate the hairs-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck sensation of listening to Browne’s 2005 debut Bosque Brown Plays Mara Lee Miller. Released on the Philadelphia-based boutique indie label Burnt Toast Records, the disc is loaded with simple, mournful tunes that take on the quality of mythology through the unique quaver of Miller’s voice, which for all its surface girlish fragility carries undercurrents of almost unearthly wisdom. It’s no surprise that Miller credits her childhood in a small town — in this case, Stephenville — as a primary source for her tunes about endless highways, far-off heavens, and the terrors of heartbreak. Yet she manages to encase such shopworn conceits in songs like “Still Afraid” and “Israel” with a numinous, slain-in-the-spirit kind of authenticity.

“When I was growing up [in Stephenville], I hated it most of the time,” she said. “I appreciate it more and more as I get older. At the time, it was hard being an artsy type where the other kids were into sports and agriculture. Then when I went other places and saw how the world works, I thought, ‘Maybe that wasn’t so bad.’ “

Miller considers her own upbringing to have been somewhat insulated, not at all hip or “artsy”: The household was strictly Southern Baptist, her mother was a school music teacher and church pianist, her father allowed only “clean movies” to be viewed on “his” tv set, which meant a lot of Bing Crosby/Bob Hope comedies and musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and Carousel. Broadway show tunes and Baptist hymns were Miller’s main diet. She sang them at the piano with her mother and sister. Once she began attending the University of North Texas as an art student in 1999, Miller’s tastes expanded to folks like Van Zandt, John Prine, Gillian Welch, and local faves Centro-matic.

This was also the period when she began songwriting, although she claims she never had a performance career in mind. Indeed, Miller says she’s fairly shy, “though not without strong opinions, and the combination doesn’t exactly make me a bubbly person.” Pressure from friends to get her songs out there culminated when Miller and her beau and future husband attended a 2002 concert at Denton’s Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios by self-styled “urban folk-singer” and Sub Pop recording artist Damien Jurado. Miller loved Jurado’s music, and Jurado, it seems, was floored by the demo that her boyfriend handed him backstage. Months of e-mailing back and forth led to Burnt Toast paying for the week-long session in Seattle that produced Bosque Browne Plays Mara Lee Miller. Jurado sang background on some tracks. Both Entertainment Weekly and the glossy rag Magnet recommended that indie fans download the offerings of this strange, kinda sad-sounding chick with tunes that made steely poetry out of quiet lives. And, oh yeah, she hadn’t even played a full-length public show yet.

That’s rapidly changing, with featured gigs at the last CMJ music showcase in New York behind her and SXSW ahead this weekend. Miller says she took the name “Bosque Browne” as a marquee moniker because she somehow didn’t feel right using her own name while playing with other musicians, so in a way it’s also the title of a band. But as she prepares to release an e.p. in a couple of months and works on her second full-length for Burnt Toast, it’s clear that the other artists are there to back up Bosque’s/Miller’s gentle-and-fierce musical qualities.

“It’s still a little nerve-wracking before shows, but I’m getting better at it,” she said. “I figure I’m not up there to tell jokes and stories about myself. I’m just going to play my music as long as people want to hear it.” l

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