Q&A: Musician-producer Buddy Miller
Long off the mainstream radar, the award winner comes into his own.
Photography courtesy New West Records
Though he has put his deft and magical touch on many a successful record, Buddy Miller inexplicably remains one of the country’s most underappreciated musical treasures. Emmylou Harris, with whom he played for nearly a decade in her backup band Spyboy, called him “one of the best guitar players of all time.” Steve Earle said he’s “the best country singer working today.” One of Nashville, Tennessee’s most gifted recording artists, guitarists, and in-demand producers, Miller has received so many awards — 2011 Americana Music Association Artist of the Year and Instrumentalist of the Year are just a couple of the recent ones — that it’s hard to keep track. So if you haven’t heard of him, it’s time you did.
In the music business for decades, Miller has been at it since he played upright bass in high school bluegrass combos in the early ’60s. He toured back roads venues across the country as an acoustic guitarist, eventually making his way to New York, where his band included a young Shawn Colvin, and finally to Nashville, where he quickly made a name for himself as a session guitar player and vocalist.
Since his own overlooked solo debut, Your Love and Other Lies, in 1995, it’s been a steady stream of songwriting, recording, playing in concert, and producing. With one significant interruption: In February 2009, while he was on the Three Girls and Their Buddy tour with Harris, Patty Griffin, and Colvin, Miller suffered a major heart attack and was rushed to a Baltimore hospital. After triple bypass surgery, he spent much of the following year recuperating at the Nashville home he shares with his wife, singer-songwriter Julie Miller.
Even so, he hardly missed a beat. A month after his heart attack, Buddy and Julie released Written in Chalk, their first CD together in eight years. A complete departure from Buddy’s previous release (the acclaimed Universal United House of Prayer), the couple’s collaboration was applauded by critics. Mostly recorded in their home studio — with guest artists like Robert Plant, Harris, Griffin, Regina and Ann McCrary (who along with Harris also appeared on Universal United House of Prayer), and Larry Campbell — Written in Chalk was nominated for five Americana Music Association Awards, ultimately winning the 2009 Album of the Year, Song of the Year for “Chalk,” Artist of the Year for Buddy, and Duo/Group of the Year for Buddy and Julie.
Moving forward, Miller produced Griffin’s gospel-infused Downtown Church and coproduced Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, touring with Plant and the Band of Joy in 2010. His latest creative outing, 2011’s Buddy Miller’s Majestic Silver Strings, has been called his most ambitious album yet. A highly original the-genius-grows-on-you reinterpretation of classic country songs (Miller calls it a “twisted country record”), the album showcases fellow Americana travelers and frequent collaborators Griffin, Colvin, Lee Ann Womack, Harris, Ann McCrary, and, of course, musical and life partner Julie Miller. But the buzz about this record swirls more around the guitar slingers: the influential Bill Frisell (“Nobody plays like him,” Miller says), Marc Ribot, Greg Leisz, and Miller himself, who together make up the Majestic Silver Strings.
One of the busiest musician-producers on the Americana scene, Buddy Miller took time out from his booked schedule to talk with Cowboys & Indians about making music.
Cowboys & Indians: You were born in Fairborn, Ohio, and lived all over the Northeast. What part did music play in your life when you were growing up?
Buddy Miller: There was quite a bit of bluegrass. There was bluegrass and some blues players would go through there, too. I went to high school in New Jersey, and radio would play The Beatles followed by Skeeter Davis followed by James Carr. It was great, and it was regional, too. You had Philly soul and other stuff coming in. I lived between Philadelphia and New York, and I could pick up stations from both when I went to high school. At the same time, I started playing guitar, and I don’t know how this happened — I never really got lessons — but the one person that was around was Marj Seeger, who was [then] married to Mike Seeger with the New Lost City Ramblers ... . She was really sweet to me and a big influence and had very eclectic tastes. It wasn’t just, you know, folk music and mountain and bluegrass stuff. She took me to see Big Bill Broonzy when he came to town. I was just a little kid, but it was real eye-opening.
C&I: How did these early influences help shape you as a musician and songwriter?
Miller: Radio was great, but I would always go deeper. I’d get records and I’d always be fascinated by the writers — who wrote the song and where did it come from — so I would always dig a little bit deeper with every record I got. And that would just make me get more records and read about writers. After a while, people like [Southern soul music great] Dan Penn and [Alabama songwriter] Donnie Fritts became friends from that world — the soul, rhythm and blues stuff. I just kept digging deeper and deeper. I loved writers.
C&I: Who are some of the writers you admired most?
Miller: Hank Williams, of course, but guys that were later like Dallas Frazier and Earl Montgomery and other country writers.
C&I: What about those styles of music — blues, bluegrass, and country — spoke to you? You could have just as easily gone into rock-and-roll.
Miller: I did, too. Everybody liked The Beatles, and I was way into the Grateful Dead, too, who actually turned a lot of people onto country music through the back door. And I would go see them play at the Fillmore; then we’d go to a bluegrass festival in Culpeper [Virginia], and I went to Woodstock. Everything was good music. I didn’t think about putting it into bins.
C&I: You’re a highly regarded songwriter. When you sit down to write, what is the process like?
Miller: I’m a real procrastinator, and I don’t mean to be, but I need to get everything cleared out of the way so I can get into that zone. I just get some music, sometimes a few little words. Julie’s so great with words; I’m just kind of like, why bother, because I don’t like what I do. So I get goin’ on it, and then I beg her to step in and help. The words have come in a few things, but it’s mostly music. I get my head in a sort of hearing-what-the-song-is frame and get what it’s about and leave [the words] to somebody else.
C&I: Do you have a favorite place or time to write?
Miller: I have a studio in the house and have always recorded everything there. I’m comfortable in my big music room. After a long international flight, when your mind is not all there, I think there’s an opportunity for something to find its way into a song, when I’m just getting home and jet-lagged.
C&I: You also work as a producer. You’ve produced Jimmie Dale Gilmore; Allison Moorer; and Patty Griffin on Downtown Church, which won the 2010 Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Album. You played on and coproduced Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, which was nominated for two Grammys. And now you’re working on Shawn Colvin’s new CD. How is the process different when you’re producing someone else?
Miller: When I’m producing someone else, the artist might have a concept for the songs. The people I work with know who they are, so a lot of the preproduction work is pinpointing where the record’s going, and then just doing it. With me, it’s starting with a blank slate. With Universal United House of Prayer, for instance, I had an idea of what I was going to do.
C&I: It obviously worked out well: That wonderful mix of gospel, blues, and soul won the 2005 Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year Award. How did that album come together?
Miller: It’s another case of the record coming up with what it’s going to be. I grew up with those records that had themes or concepts. And I miss a record being a record. I miss records, a big thing that you can hold on to. And the art on it was a big deal.
C&I: When you record, you use old, not new, microphones?
Miller: I love all of those. They’re the best sounding mikes. There’s something about singing into a 70-year-old microphone that’s disintegrated and maybe stinks a little bit ... it’s got some soul. You don’t know what’s been recorded on that or who sang into it. To me, it’s something that’s a bit magical, instead of a brand-new out-of-the-box microphone.
C&I: When you’re not on the road and you’ve got some home time, do you go out in Nashville and listen to music?
Miller: I try to. It depends if I’m working on something. My schedule is so laid out for me.
C&I: What are some of your favorite places?
Miller: Wherever my friends are playing. Tonight I’m going to see Dan Penn.
C&I: Sounds like a life crammed with creativity. After all these years, do you trust the creative process, or do you go through periods of angst, wondering if the ideas will come?
Miller: I go through both. I’ve done enough now, though, that I just trust that it’s going to be OK. My primary goal is something that won’t make me cringe when I hear it five years from now.