Every night a reality singing show airs, there is an artist performing in a bar or club within driving distance of your house who is exuding their demons and desires for what is probably less than one-hundred people. This is a travesty. For the record, I don't begrudge the singers who go on these shows. They view it as their chance, however, too many of them talk about how it is going to change the lives of their family. It's never about having their voice heard, getting a chance to tell their own stories or providing a prescription to listeners for the pain that we endure daily with life. There is a celebrity element surrounding the circus of these television shows which outweighs what really matters the music. I've had such issue with karaoke television since its inception. Make no mistake, it has created a handful of genuine singers who have made careers for themselves, but what people continually overlook is that a great voice doesn't equal an ability to convey and connect. If you look at all the reality shows featuring up and coming artists, many have made big splashes out of the gate only to not have anyone remember them a year later. What differentiates a great singer from a great artist? One is technically adept whereas the other digs deep and finds a way to let the audience take a peek inside their soul. When I watch Kelly Clarkson perform onstage, I know that she's purging something from the inside whether or not she wrote the song. Most acts while theoretically proficient lack this ability to want to go the distance. On stage inside 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville, I watched an angel sent from above to help us make sense of the jigsaw puzzle of life and her name is Sarah Buxton. You may not know her name, but you know her.
Sarah Buxton made a name for herself when she wrote "Stupid Boy". When Keith Urban heard the song from his producer Dan Huff, he recorded it and it's been a staple of his concerts ever since. Along with Jedd Hughes and Urban, she co-wrote "Put You In A Song", the lead cut from Urban's 2010 album Get Closer. Just recently she co-wrote "That's Why I Pray", the lead single from Big & Rich's next album Hillbilly Jedi's. I still would be wholly unfamiliar with her if not for chance. The events that led me to 3rd and Lindsley were mystifying. The trip to Nashville was a last minute plan made by my wife since it was drivable from Chicago. As I had pulled up in my car to my hotel, Keith Urban's "Stupid Boy" came on the iPod (it was in "Shuffle" mode). I turned to my wife and told her a story how that guitar solo almost never existed. Buxton had emailed Bob Lefsetz a few weeks earlier to explain the story about how she had to fight producer Dan Huff to get that solo and not just end or fade the song before the four-minute mark. The irony was that as I was telling the story to my wife, Buxton's name escaped me. As I sat in my hotel room, my wife was reading off the shows we could catch that evening when she mentioned Buxton's name which immediately set-off a trigger in my mind. I leapt up from the bed and said "She's the one who wrote 'Stupid Boy', we have to go". As I sat inside the 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville, I watched someone whose talent is more than that of an artist but a transcendent human whom after ninety-minutes, I felt as if I had known my entire life.
Sarah Buxton took to the small stage with nothing more than a microphone and her husband, ace session guitarist Tom Bukovac who didn't so much as back her but partner and compliment the torrential downpour of affecting vocals. Throughout her ninety-minute performance over eighteen songs, she wasn't concerned with perfection so much as liberation. As she stood at the center of the stage for an early Friday night show, she took the microphone and in a soft and delicate manner sung the chorus of the Bad Company classic "Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy" beginning a spiritual arousing I could not have foreseen. During "Butterflies" she gently caressed the song before the chorus where she unleashed something staggering from way down inside while on "Loving You Is the Only Way to Fly" and "Endless Summer", she was joined by Jedd Hughes and the amalgamation of their two voices tugged at your heart. She sung "Sweet On You" with a spirited kick and bobbed her head like a teenager after their first kiss. Marlee Scott's "Trainwreck" was performed with a zigzagging guitar. You could hear a pin drop on the spacious "Speak of the Devil" while on "Mad Mad Love", her voice ascended furthering the inestimable spirals of pain and heartache we all encounter. On "Big Blue Sky" Buxton painted picturesque dreams. Watching her sing with Jedd Hughes and her husband behind her, she was off and running with her dream. The way she sang the song was potent enough to make someone believe in love even after they've been deserted in matters of the heart.
My heart skipped a beat on "Moonshine" as she poured herself into the song. Every emotion within her tiny frame was expressed through her engaging voice in a performance fueled by the sexual tension of her swaying body, the raw bareness of her vocal and Bukovac's bluesy strumming. I've seen full band performances of the song on YouTube and they're brilliant, but the skin-to-skin anxiety underpinned the minimalist performance- there was nothing to hide her dreamy desires. Then there's "Stupid Boy". I first heard it by Keith Urban back in 2006, but it wasn't until I was sent to review him that I realized the power of the song. If there was justice in this world, Sarah Buxton would be a platinum selling artist selling out arenas nationwide. If there's anything this world has taught us it's that justice is in short demand these days, but it didn't matter to Buxton because she went onstage and she sung her heart out with a smile on her face. My wife and I were simultaneously shooting each other looks in between songs because we couldn't believe what we were seeing; we felt relieved, rewarded and revitalized after seeing her.
On the surface, there is an air of innocence to Buxton's songs and performances, but when you dig down and hear her lyrics, you become acutely aware this is someone who has lived these experiences. This is the essence of artistry. Her uncertainty, verve and bewilderment came across on stage. My only wish is that these songs were available for purchase. While she performed a few songs from his self-titled 2010 album and 2006's Almost My Record, the majority of the performance featured songs that have yet to find a home, which is a travesty because they're buried gems deserving the widest audience possible. They're not undistinguished cookie cutter ditties but profound expressions birthed from a sacred space. While I watched Sarah Buxton onstage in Nashville, I felt as if she was a close personal friend I would share these experiences with, except she has a microphone and a guitar. She doesn't sugar coat her past, yet there is an austerity and verve every time she sings. Buxton is an artist we should herald; someone not afraid of being herself. Watching her onstage is a revelation of body, mind and soul. Hearing her life story, articulated through the music, was more awe-inspiring than any Celine Dion karaoke rendition you will ever see on reality television. Buxton has lived a life where she's been battered and broken, used and abused and yet on this tiny stage in Nashville, she was a woman you didn't simply like and would discuss at the water cooler the next morning; she's someone you fall in love with. She bears her soul through these songs. I'll take a performance filled with sentiment and mechanical flaws every day of the week over one that is technically perfect but has no heart. Sarah Buxton is all heart and is an artist capable of creating road maps for life, let's just hope more riders hop on the train.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Sarah Buxton: An Undiscovered Soul