Poets & Pickers – Carole J. Bufford

“In the last year and a half, I had a little down time,” begins Carole J Bufford. Time to do a deep dive into some catalogues of musicians she admires. The result is an amalgam of country, rockabilly, R&B, and blues with a dash of black humor wrapped in signature sass and sexual innuendo.

“The Pilgrim-Chapter 33” (Kris Kristofferson) describes the show’s characters: “poets weaving stories, pickers/shitkickers, a prophet saving our souls and  a con man pushing a buck…We wanted to explore when a high brow person goes down and dirty and when a low life elevates himself to something fancy,” she tells us. The song is slow, emphatic, chord-driven, a far cry from the writer’s folksy version.

Bufford bounces, bends and wails through Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy”: Your pa’s run off, I’m real sick/The baby’s gonna starve to death…Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy…enunciation is paper cut sharp. She prances. Peter Calo accompanies with signature pat and strum guitar. Percussionist Chris Marshak rhythmically hits the wood box on which he sits. The tune has a pulse. It’s a terrific arrangement.

Melody Gardot’s “If I Tell You I Love You” (darlin’ I’m lyin’) arrives like a raised eyebrow above the performer’s crinkled nose. The vocalist adds ssssmoke to lyrics. Calo organically slides from top frets to pat then pick. His guitar is another limb.

Photos by Dawn Derow

Bufford connects with her audience eye to eye. She owns the stage. Two by Randy Newman include a nasal, progressively sped up (like Jacques Brel) “Old Kentucky Home”: Shootin’ the birds on the telephone line/Pickin’ them off with this gun of mine and the sarcastic “Political Science”: Let’s drop the big one and see what happens…as an uncomfortably apt protest anthem.  

At 14, Bufford was cast as Nancy in her first musical, Oliver. Theatrically ambitious even then, she longed to play the villain, Fagin. “Reviewing the Situation” (Lionel Bart – Fagin’s song from the show) is a fully dramatized scene-in-one, excessive, entertaining. Bufford would do justice to Weimar Kabaret material. “You’d Be Surprised” (Irving Berlin) is pure, heady suggestion. Few performers seduce as well as this artist. Lyric emerges with a savored lag, vocal strikes a period wah-wah tone.

Colin Meloy’s “A Cautionary Song” and “The Circle” (Vincent Scotto/Andre Decaye; John Kander/Fred Ebb) are irrepressibly Edward Gorey dark. Kidnap, rape, threats and collard greens feature in the first, prostitutes reign in the second. Also Brel-like …at ease with the dark/at odds with the light…has a waltzy chorus. Phrasing is pungent, charged.

Bufford closes with a rolling version of “Maybe It’s Time” (Jason Isbell) which asks, she says, “what do I want to take from the past to move on?” and “The Joke” (Brandi Carlile): Let ’em laugh while they can/Let ’em spin, let ’em scatter in the wind/I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends/And the joke’s on them…a positive outlook with textured beat and soaring vocal. Tonight’s encore is “Folsom Prison” (Johnny Cash). Dense, tensile guitar and Bufford’s precise, rip-roaring take echo like testimony.

Some people have voices. Carole J. Bufford possesses an extraordinary instrument. Stage is a second home. She vibrates, expands. The collaboration with Peter Calo is taut, cool, audacious and fun.

Opening Photo by Kevin Alvey

Poets & Pickers
Vocals: Carole J. Bufford Musical Director/Guitar: Peter Calo Percussion: Chris Marshak Arrangements Peter Calo and Carole J. Bufford

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About Alix Cohen (1169 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.