Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale have been friends so long, making a record seemed almost beside the point. They’ve played in each other’s band, recorded each other’s songs and followed each other from New York to LA to Nashville, and along the way done a fine job carving out the sonic roots and origins of today’s Americana movement.
But time teaches people to honor their core, seek those things that are overtly pleasurable. Thankfully, Buddy and Jim happened, a thrown together, largely recorded on the fly hodgepodge of old soul, vintage country, oddball shuffles and the occasional plaintive ballad. Neither studied or perfect, it was a document of a moment shared between friends.
And with a decidedly surging riff that flares and repeats, Lauderdale and Miller kicked off their show at the Mercy Lounge with demonstrable brio as “I Lost My Job (of Loving You),” insistent and raging at what has occurred, came at the audience hard. Not to bludgeon, but to create a sense of purpose, the pair swung for the bleachers and showed that freewheeling can have its own collected dervish potential.
Lauderdale, in an electric blue Manuel suit, and Miller, fedora-topped and sporting a jacket of snake skin print column jacket with paisley inserts, each cut a natty figure for their romp through old favorites, classic covers and songs written for their album. Making high Catskills shtick seem somehow indie and now, there was a joy even to the banter that demonstrated the exuberance of the forty year friendship.
“This is the first song I think we ever sang together, “ Lauderdale confessed, as Miller looked on with a Cheshire grin before unleashing a particularly lascivious electric guitar part that kicked George Jones’ “The Race Is On” into frenetic bit of honky tonk.
Later Lauderdale would celebrate Jones and Gram Parsons’ place in the hallows of hillbilly desolation with “The King of Broken Hearts.” Pathos strung over Fats Kaplan wide-open steel is everything that makes old country vinyl so bewitching and cathartic.
It is both their inherent understanding of the forms and their unbridled joy at the way music comes together, rises and then rises higher still that gives them their chemistry. The noirbilly “Vampire Girl” comes off as pure Tarantino: the low-riding electric guitar suggesting the Cramps channeling “Twilight,” while Johnny & Jack’s “Down South In New Orleans” becomes a staccato lust up that is as much about the sex as it is the thumb-slapping upright bass part from Jay Weaver.
Giddiness cloaked the evening. The duo traded verses on their coyly direct “Looking For A Heartache Like You” with a wink and a smile, rolled their eyes on the wild-goose chase tumble “Hole In My Head” and the spun their crazed rubber groove take on Jimmy McCracklin’s 1959 hit “The Wobble” like it was the last good time left to have.
As euphoric as that was, and it was intoxicatingly high-spirited, the real mettle of their performance came on the slower songs that allowed their harmonies to draw out. The slow burning stroll of Joe Tex’s “I Want To Do Everything For You” was all pained pledge, while the Miller/Lauderdale/Julie Miller “That’s Not Even Why I Love You” had a regality that let Buddy’s slightly worn vocal cut through and be tempered by Lauderdale’s more hickory/honey tone.
That is the magic of these two journeyman musicos: they know bluegrass, folk, vintage pop, country, blues and beyond, and their differences come together to create a blend that is smoke and sweet, rich and tart, enduring and played out.
It is a special alchemy that makes such divisive aspects work together, in part from that sense of knowing the other’s proclivities as well as working on similar instincts. For the pair, who did schtick about finishing each other’s sentences… the friendship is so evident, one smiles just seeing the way they give each other “the look.”
For all the years and projects, songs written and albums produced or recorded, at the core, Lauderdale and Miller remain friends who love music. And for as much depth as they offer classic idioms in modern context, the pair remind music lovers it’s that shared joy that truly draws people in.
For one night, at the Mercy Lounge, Nashville got to bear witness. In “a company town,” where music is often reduced to product, this may be the most important lesson of all. Rough in places, loose in others, Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller represented the living, breathing apex of what music can and should be.