A disquisition on the centrality of love and faith in the music of Buddy Miller
Where to begin, this ending?
With the thing that has always mattered most: The music.
In the spring of 1998, the fourteenth edition of this magazine proclaimed Alejandro Escovedo to be Artist Of The Decade. It was a puckish thing to have done, set off by the live More Miles Than Money album, which reprised but did not quite extend the grandeur of his decade’s work. We feared, not without reason, that one of America’s singular artists was close to disappearing from its stage. And we believed — then and now — in the power and importance of his work. In its passion and variety.
We believed in the music.
Alejandro gratified our faith by not disappearing. By making more terrific albums. By gracing the covers of other magazines. By continuing to tour his vital, constantly evolving music, despite well-publicized health troubles. It matters not at all whether that one issue of our immodest little magazine made any difference, but he has been kind enough to say that it did.
It is not a stunt, naming Buddy Miller artist of this frenzied decade of two zeros in this, our seventy-fifth and final magazine. It is a summation. The last, best thing we believed possible to do.
Buddy will probably disagree with our choice, because he is a modest man accustomed to working among giants.
And because he does not see that they all stand in his shadow, as much as he does in theirs.
This is simple. Buddy Miller embodies everything I have wanted this magazine to stand for, even before I began lurking in an AOL folder called “No Depression”, even before I dared seriously suggest to Peter Blackstock that we really could and should start a magazine. The quality and variety of Buddy’s work, his grace and kindness, his deep knowledge about and unabated passion for music: That’s what we stand for. His commitment to making and improving his art well past the easy victories of youth.
He is a good man, Buddy Miller is. And an extraordinary artist: musician, producer, vocalist, songwriter. His career is almost without precedent, for I can think of no other figure who has managed simultaneously to play a supporting role behind so many others and to thrive as the leader of his own band, as a performer in his own right.
(Perhaps his friend T Bone Burnett comes closest. Perhaps. But Burnett’s solo music has never touched my soul.)
A good and decent man, and an extraordinary artist.
The rarest of combinations.
Buddy Miller is 55 years old. This is an age at which some lucky and accursed few retire from their life’s work, to do god only knows what. Swing at golf balls and waitresses?
Buddy is just now doing the best work of his career, the work his entire life has prepared him for.
This work: In Austin, during SXSW 2008, he shared stages with Bonnie Bramlett and Johnny Rivers, then caught a plane to Los Angeles to play with Emmylou Harris before taking the redeye back to Nashville to record — in his home, as always — his seventh solo album (not counting his collaborations with his wife, Julie, which also number seven). His schedule was tightened considerably by upcoming rehearsals for the tour with which Robert Plant and Alison Krauss will follow up the release of their collaboration Raising Sand, which went to #2 on the Billboard charts.
In this decade he has produced Allison Moorer’s Mockingbird and Solomon Burke’s Nashville, co-produced Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s One Endless Night, and did the digital editing and restoration on Willie Nelson’s Crazy: The Demo Sessions. He has performed (one way or another) on albums by Levon Helm, Miranda Lambert, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Kasey Chambers, Frank Black, Jim Lauderdale, Albert Lee, Lee Ann Womack, Rodney Crowell, Lori McKenna, the Chieftains, Vigilantes Of Love, and Trisha Yearwood.
His songs…their songs (it is difficult to know where Buddy’s work begins and Julie’s leaves off)…have been cut by, well, a lot of people, including the Dixie Chicks (“Hole In My Head”, co-written with Jim Lauderdale), Lee Ann Womack (“Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”), and Hank Williams III (“Lonesome For You”). And Brooks & Dunn (“My Love Will Follow You”), which, at least, pays for his guitar collection.
And then his own work for the century so far: the long-awaited formal collaboration Buddy & Julie Miller (2001), Midnight And Lonesome (2002), and Universal United House Of Prayer (2004). And the one he’s making now, even as I type.
That is not a complete list.
Nor is it the point.
This is: Close your eyes and stand, almost touching tired strangers, stand next to me (and do not talk; please do not talk) on the wooden floor of the Mercy Lounge in Nashville and listen…listen to Buddy sing Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side” in the newness of our now five-year-old war. Just listen.
My eyes are closed because I do not wish you to see my tears.
I don’t even like Dylan.
He is hungry, having worked through lunch, but decides against eating one of the promotional power bars in his guitar case, perhaps uncertain this free food is actually food. He is thirsty, but the vending machine will not take his dollar and he will not accept mine. He will drink a glass of water from the tap. Closes the green guitar case. Calls quickly, standing and restless, to sort out the night’s guest list. Apologizes for the trouble.
“I’m a lucky guy,” Buddy Miller says, seated at last.
Occasionally Peter and I used to run into Buddy at a pancake place in Nashville, not far from where he and Julie live. Their order always went home with him in styrofoam, but he would stop by and say hello, and that’s where he handed each of us an early burn of 1997’s Poison Love. With an apology because, of course, he knew there were things wrong with it that he hadn’t time to fix. As if he were blind to his own gifts, though he insists he is not.
“I think I’m just realistic,” he says. “Really. I do a thing and it’s just what I do. There’s so many things I can’t do. I just do my thing, and it is what it is, and I try to expand…but there are players that I look at all the time who are so much better than me, and people don’t know about ’em.
“So I’ve just been really really blessed and lucky. I’m not…self-deprecating, or whatever people say. I just don’t look at it that way. I know good players, and I hear me. I love what I do…I was listening to some playbacks of early shows with Emmylou and I realized, man, I was playing OK, but I was singing so out of tune!
“I can do some things, and I’m so glad the people that like me like me. And they’re unbelievable people I get to work with. I mean, my favorite music. So I couldn’t be any happier about that. But I just think I know what I do and am always trying to do something, but…is that an answer?”
Some of us live with a curse: jack of all trades, master of none. This is why there is a shortage not so much of doctors, but of family care physicians. Buddy Miller is — like the Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey — a man who loves music. All of it. The listening, the playing, the making, the talking about. All of it.
And he has made himself master of all those things.
He is a musician with a serious record collection, and a memory of even the obscure 45s released by songwriter Dallas Frazier (who wrote “Elvira” and “Mohair Sam” and many others). A detailed, critical memory of Frazier’s entire body of work, and the curiosity to ask his guitarist friend Kenny Vaughan to call his boss, Marty Stuart, to ask Marty’s wife, Connie Smith (who cut 60 or 70 of Frazier’s songs), where Frazier might be, and if Buddy might meet and talk with him. Which hasn’t happened. Yet.
He is far more excited talking about the reissue, by the Australian label Raven, of Frazier’s two R&B albums than he is discussing his own work.
We finally figure out which two LPs it is. “OK, then it’s the two Capitols. Rats. Then they aren’t going to be worth as much on eBay anymore.” And then he laughs, loudly, joyously, at the silliness of that notion. “Nah, I wouldn’t ever get rid of ’em. They were a source of great material. It’s cool stuff, isn’t it? And I’ve got the RCAs, too.
“He sounded like Delbert McClinton. Was ‘Home In My Hand’ on that thing”? It is, the final track on a 1967 album called Tell It Like It Is! “Commander Cody covered that song on their first record.”
We digress…the point is that Buddy Miller loves music. And he has come to the making of music so comprehensively — writing, producing, playing, recording, mastering — that it has taken a long time to bend all those components to his quiet, patient, immutable will.
“I don’t do anything long enough to get really good at it. Maybe that’s part of it…and I guess I see it from the other side,” he laughs. “I wish I could get stuff a little bit better or spend more time on [it]…but I wouldn’t give up any of it. And I think I’ve gotten better at everything a little bit at a time. And, gosh, the people that I get to work with doing everything. I get to hang out with and work with and watch. So I try to take something away from everybody and everything I do.”
My stepmother had a cousin, Nicoletta, who I saw for the last time the day the doctor sent her home to die. Her father had been an art historian, and a friend of Picasso’s, but the Nazis got all of that. She always had a smile. That evening Nicoletta sat in the dwindling light of a Seattle summer night and her eyes fairly sparkled as she asked that I explain the arcane intricacies of setting type. Sparkled with life. With curiosity.
Buddy has her eyes. Not her diagnosis, I hasten to add. But that unquenchable hunger to know.
A central argument of this magazine is now and has always been that vital, creative music could come from anywhere. Could be made by anybody, regardless of age or background or nationality.
Regardless of age.
Popular music changes and youth should be served. Of course it should, for I have not forgotten the fall of 1976, seeing Uncle Cookie at the Richmond Rec Center playing the Ramones’ “Beat On The Brat”. (Their bass player, Conrad Uno, went on to launch PopLlama Records, where Peter Blackstock briefly interned when he first moved to Seattle; Uno produced much of the Young Fresh Fellows’ catalogue, as well as the breakthrough album by the Presidents Of The United States Of America.)
But youth is not everything; it is but one passing fancy. One stage. One short story to be told over and over again in a three-minute song. A good story, to be sure, but only one of the many possible stories a three-minute song might hold.
Some damn snark argued online that all important art was created by people under 40. Bullshit. Three names: Ludwig Van Beethoven, James McNeill Whistler, Wallace Stegner. Drive on.
We are all trying to tell and understand our own stories, whether we write the songs or merely sing along quietly. Those stories do not end when children come and spouses leave and jobs change; they simply become more complicated. We still need that nourishment. The need does not go away, even if those of us attending to it are smaller in number and more scattered in attention.
Once one has achieved a certain proficiency at one’s art, the steps forward are smaller, more difficult, less visible. But they are steps forward, nevertheless, and worth taking.
“I always drifted this way and that way and into the country thing,” Buddy says. “I was influenced by soul stuff growing up, because of the radio. It was all a mix, it was great. It was Skeeter Davis followed by Jimmy Ruffin and the Temptations, whoever. The Beatles. And I loved that stuff. I’d go around buying records based on songwriters.
“I got way into — who later became a friend — Dan Penn, and Donnie Fritts, and discovering Eddie Hinton, and Spooner [Oldham]. And to me it’s all the same as country music, those songs. Those songs can go either way real easy to me.”
A winding road. Yes.
Stephen Paul Miller was born in Fairborn, Ohio, near to Dayton, September 6, 1952, smack in the middle of the baby boom. His dad was in the Air Force; they ended up settling in Princeton, New Jersey. There was not, he says, a lot of music in the house. But there was that radio. “My father liked music,” he adds. “My mother did, too. Nobody really played.”
But Buddy played. Really played. (It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened had he and Jerry Douglas, two years his junior, grown up around each other in the Dayton-Columbus-Cincinnati triangle.) Played bluegrass rhythm guitar and standup bass as a teenager, then in a country band of some description that toured from New England to California in an old school bus. He ended up in Austin about 1975. Played in bands with Julie Griffin, who became his second wife, and Gurf Morlix and Shawn Colvin, who became his friends. Moved to the Jersey side of New York, playing country music, met a fellow named Jim Lauderdale, and guitarist Larry Campbell (who went on to play with Dylan).
It all spirals from there, only it doesn’t.
Julie and then Buddy found God. Capitalize that. Not god. They found God and it stuck. Made them who they are, opened the door to who they could be. Eventually. Still.
Moved to Lindale, Texas, which decades later ended up being home to Miranda Lambert, on whose records Buddy has sung. Quit playing music, joined a religious community. Some of us might have called it a cult, but it’s not something they talk about and it doesn’t matter anyhow, except that it says something about how deeply they explore their faith. That part does matter.
Spent a couple years in Seattle doing that work, ended up in San Francisco, around the corner from a record store. The songs wouldn’t let go. Fell in with Peter Case and Victoria Williams. Moved to Los Angeles, added Lucinda Williams to the mix. Ended up in Nashville in 1993.
That’s the short version.
Biographers write that Bill Monroe had a baseball scout’s memory for adept players in obscure places, always had his ear to small radio stations on the road. This was necessary, especially during the lean years when pay decreased but his standards did not, and so he found himself in the middle of a tour suddenly needing, say, a banjo player. Or a fiddler. Or both.
The surviving sidemen who played with Mr. Monroe are among the bluegrass elect, now, no matter how long their cup of coffee in the big leagues lasted.
(Del McCoury, for example, stuck it out for less than a year before heading to California. He tells the story of coming to audition as a banjo player and being handed a Martin guitar, told by the great man, “You’ll like this.” This is often read as evidence of Monroe’s prescience, but it is also true that by the time McCoury got to Nashville, Monroe had found a better banjo player in Bill Keith, the legend after Earl Scruggs. And however fine an instrumentalist McCoury is and was, it’s his voice that gets you out of your seat.)
Emmylou Harris, no small fan of America’s pastime, was one among the younger generation in Nashville to take notice of Mr. Monroe during his mellow years. To spend time on his porch, listening. Today, membership in one of her variously named backing bands — the Hot Band, the Nash Ramblers, Spyboy — confers similar status, and her alumni association has proved out nicely: Emory Gordy Jr., Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs, Tony Brown, Vince Gill, Albert Lee, Jerry Douglas. She has exceptional ears for songs, and for players.
Buddy Miller was a virtual unknown when, in 1995, Harris asked him to sing and play guitar and other stringed things in Spyboy. Unknown unless you’d stumbled upon his then freshly-released HighTone Records debut Your Love And Other Lies — or if you happened to be a fan of contemporary Christian music and had run onto Julie Miller’s first four albums (the first three on Myrrh, the last on Street Level), released from 1990-94. There, among the credits, is their enduring web of friends and collaborators: Shawn Colvin, Victoria Williams, the late Mark Heard, the late Donald Lindley, Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, Don Heffington.
Buddy played on Julie’s records, of course, and helped to produce them. First as engineer and associate producer on 1990’s Meet Julie Miller, then as co-producer. The credits for He Walks Through Walls and Orphans And Angels read “produced by Dan Posthuma, Buddy Miller, Julie Miller”; Buddy and Julie co-produced her final album for the Christian market, Invisible Girl, without Posthuma.
Julie Miller was an emerging artist working in a relatively small format, and quirky (one of the tracks on her debut is called “My Psychiatrist”). Huge sums of money were not spent to make those four records, and production on the last three — I’ve still not found her debut — sounds tinny and dated. Compressed.
Nevertheless, she and Buddy had learned a great deal — about what they would and wouldn’t do, and how to get it done — when it came time to make her two secular releases, 1997’s Blue Pony and 1999’s Broken Things (both on HighTone). Her song “Broken Things”, for example, first surfaced in 1991 on He Walks Through Walls, and they recontextualized that album’s co-written “I Will Follow You” to “My Love Will Follow You” on Buddy’s Your Love And Other Lies.
Well, somewhere in there Buddy had already cut a record called Man On The Moon that he would very much prefer you not hear. “Oh, no,” he groans softly when I mention listening to my co-editor’s copy. But when offered a chance to make a proper album, he reprised “My Love Will Follow You” and his version of Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got To Memphis” from that debut. Nailed ’em, the second time.
Somebody described Jon Dee Graham’s songs as all being about loss, which is mostly right. Buddy & Julie Miller’s music is about love and faith, which are not quite the same things, but it’s impossible to have one without the other. (And there’s a reason tears reappear throughout their work.)
“You know what?” Buddy nods after a moment. “I think a lot of ’em are. I hope a lot of ’em are. Or about sometimes the inner…yearning. Sometimes it’s love that’s not happening, but that’s still love.”
Buddy and Julie’s songs haven’t changed over the years, which is not to say they haven’t grown as writers, that their faith hasn’t been challenged. But they’ve always written about faith and love. Somehow the simple transition out of the contemporary Christian ghetto — albeit into the Americana ghetto — made all that talk of faith acceptable. Natural. Allowed the rest of us to hear what their musician friends already knew. Took the dogma out of it, allowed us to hear them as the songs of searchers, not as the professions of the certain few.
And this: The first track of her first album, Meet Julie Miller, gave name to Buddy’s in-home studio, Dogtown. Julie, of course, is a cat person.
Julie Miller did not come to South By Southwest. She hasn’t toured — not with Buddy, nor with anybody — for four years, not since Buddy’s Universal United House Of Prayer came out and lightning killed her brother, Jeff Griffin, who was mowing their parents’ lawn in Texas. There is no connection between those two events, they just happened around the same time.
She is so much a part of everything he does…
It’s complicated. She’s complicated. “Her health has been, you know, not all that good,” Buddy says. Some years ago she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, one of those complicated syndromes with lots of pain and no clear cause nor cure. “There’s been a lot of different things working against it. Against each other, health-wise,” Buddy says.
“And then she was very close to her brother. Everything just kind of bundled together, and I think shut her down in a lot of ways.” There is sadness and love and understanding in his voice. And, almost immediately, hope. A smile.
“I think she’s doing a little bit better now. She’s been writing a ton of great songs, at least starting them and getting them halfway done, which isn’t really writing. That’s just getting a song that’s halfway done. But she’s finishing some of them.”
Eight notebooks full of them, he guesses, later.
“I don’t know if she’ll go out again. I wish she would, but I think this record that I’m wrapping up in the next two weeks will have a fair amount of her involvement in it. Her songs are just unbelievable. I think out of this whole tough three or four years she’s been able to put down some things. And not all heavy stuff.
“So, in a word, she’s not doing great, but…I believe she’s on her way back sometime. I miss her. It was tough for me when I started going out [without her]. Everything’s a duet, or most everything.”
And then he brightens again. “I talked to her yesterday. She said, ‘I’m finishing some songs, I’ll be handing you lyrics when you’re in front of the microphone.'”
As long as she is there, it will be enough. Together their voices are resplendent, and no matter whose name is on the album cover, their records have always been the product of their shared vision.
Thing is, what Julie wants from music seems to have evolved. “She didn’t want to get a record deal,” Buddy laughs. “I shouldn’t say that, because it makes me sound like I’m a businessman or something, but when you’re a couple, people take on different roles, a little bit. She doesn’t take the mail in, doesn’t do that kind of stuff, or listen to phone messages, if there are any, or answer the phone for that matter.
“And music’s not to be…it’s almost like a jazz view, it’s like notes you play out there that aren’t to be captured, and it’s kind of sacred. But I like making records, and I love what I do, and I want to be able to keep doing it.
“Anyway, she didn’t want a record deal. She didn’t want any pressure. Matter of fact, early on we turned down…anything that would involve money or an advance from a publishing company, even before we had anything cut, when we had a first record that was a possibility.
“And I can completely respect that.
“But when we were done at HighTone, she said, ‘Please don’t get a record deal. Let’s just make a record and then find out where it belongs when it’s done.’ And I just didn’t go with that. I’m used to making a record in three weeks. That’s a fairly long time, not taking three years or whatever it’s been to make…” and he trails off, thinking about the album he has to finish when he gets home and hears her new songs.
Jim Herrington photographed Buddy and Julie for the cover of our September-October 1999 issue, which seems a long time ago now. We still had photographs separated (rather than scanned, or taken digitally) then, and, when I went to pick up the artwork, the woman behind the counter looked at me. Hard. “Are they married?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “That’s good,” she answered. “Because he looks at her like she’s his everything.”
To a kid growing up in Seattle in the 1970s, Led Zeppelin were gods. Demigods, maybe. There was, even then, a sense of diminution, for we knew we’d missed the Beatles — at least seeing them — and Zeppelin weren’t that. But they were rock stars, the biggest rock stars. And I can remember sitting in a beanbag chair in my best friend’s room listening to IV over and over and over again. “Stairway To Heaven” was a plague, came out #1 on Seattle rock radio for decades, though I never did know how they measured that.
Why the Stones never figured into this equation I cannot guess, but they didn’t. Altamont, maybe. Perhaps they were already past their prime.
When Alison Krauss made an album with Robert Plant, it was and is a big deal, at least to those of us of a certain age. A certain kind of vindication, since part of the argument for starting this magazine was that punk (like rock before it) would and could move to country as it matured. That their album didn’t suck was a nice bonus, but not entirely a surprise since T Bone Burnett doesn’t make bad records. And both Krauss and Plant were and are formidable musicians more than they were and are stars, especially since stars are now people who generate blog hits, not tears.
Buddy Miller didn’t play on Raising Sand, but if you watched the CMT “Crossroads” special carefully, you spotted him comfortably in the shadows behind Marc Ribot (the jazz-ish guitarist who did play on the record) and Burnett. When the tour opened in Louisville April 19, Buddy was up front, and Ribot was off doing other things.
This is, at the moment we met, a small problem for Buddy. He has 45 songs on his iPhone to learn, and only listened to them for the first time on the plane to Austin. And he has an album to finish before rehearsals begin (which, I suppose, leaves open the possibility of a few last-minute special guests; or not).
He’s far more worried about his record than he is about touring with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.
“Most of [the 45 songs] I know,” he says. “They’re old country and rockabilly stuff, a lot of them, half of them. It’s the Zeppelin stuff I’ll be struggling with.”
Which comes as a surprise, given Zeppelin’s building blocks in blues tradition and ubiquity on rock radio.
“It was funny,” Buddy answers. “When we were working on ‘Black Dog’, if you listen to their recording of it, the drums play straight, [but] there are some things that are sort of out of time. I don’t know if it’s intentionally or what was going on then. It’s got a strange feel to it. And Marc Ribot was there [at the CMT rehearsals] listening, and Robert said, ‘I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to hear that lick.’
“[Ribot] picked up my banjo, listening to it over and over, the Led Zeppelin record. ‘This is like a strange, a different kind of Armenian way of playing nine.’ And he started writing a chart, and not just a chord chart, but with dots, music notes on it. Which I kept. And then [he] started playing it on the banjo because that’s what was in his hand, and that’s what we went with as the intro for it.”
“Which I kept,” Buddy says in a soft, conspiratorial voice, his eyes sparkling, his lips curling into a smile.
Of course he did.
“I think I might be playing some pedal steel on the tour, which would be cool.”
And of course he’s not quite sure why they wanted him, of all people. But there’s a story.
“Robert Plant came to an Emmylou gig, I don’t know, maybe five, six years ago, in Dublin. A lot of theaters have pubs in the front over there. I went up there to get a drink, and he was there, and I got to meet him and we chatted a bit. And I think he liked the show.
“Chatted about, you know, music. He’s so passionate about music, that’s a word that’s used a lot…we talked about Arthur Lee and Love. I am and was so into the ’60s San Francisco stuff…I just thought it was such a creative period. You can still put on those records and hear those guitar sounds and realize they’re recording on four tracks. He’s really knowledgeable about it. He’s so into that, besides everything else he’s into.
“I mean, I’m into this band, Tinariwen, from Mali. They’re rebels, they might even have those guns with bullets on them on the cover. And I’ve been into them for a while; I played some for Julie, she flipped over it. They’re influenced by traditional local music, and also by really old traditional blues, American blues. It’s super strange chords. I find out he goes down there and plays with them, has them open his shows.
“He’s really deep.
“Anyway, he came out with the band and Emmylou and we all had a drink afterwards. And I am guessing that had something to do maybe with me getting the guitar call. Because there’s a lot of guitar players around that can fit the bill.”
It is comforting to know that Buddy Miller is making another record as I struggle with these words. All I know about it is that he’s cut a version of Percy Sledge’s “Cover Me” as a bonus track, and that I hope and suspect he’s having more fun at his work than I am at mine.
“You need to make a record and a half now,” he grumbles, as much as Buddy will ever grumble. “You make the record which you hope is the record and played as a record. Because I love records, too. They’re made that way for a reason. And then there have to be four or five bonus tracks for everybody to have exclusive bonus tracks. Which is like a record and a half.”
But, of course, Buddy would collect the unreleased B-sides, too.
Whatever the record ends up being, whatever it ends up being called, it’s tentatively scheduled for release in August on New West. And it will be the product of his particular recording genius.
“I know ways to do certain things, but I don’t really know what I’m doing,” he insists. “I know enough to get people I love to come over and play and hang out with. Sometimes people I don’t know that well, but I’ve just got a great vibe around ’em. So that’s step one.
“And they can put up with my quirky ways of working. Because I generally don’t get an engineer when I make a record, which I should do, I feel like an idiot every time. But the less people I have over there when I’m making a record, the less embarrassed I am and humiliated, especially an engineer.
“I’m just recording in a house, and they [engineers] don’t like working that way. Even though a lot of people do these days. It’s all I’ve ever done, and I still feel like, ‘Yeah, he’s acting like this is OK, but he hates it.’ And all he’s hearing is, ‘Why do I have to hear the reflection off the wall?’ when I don’t care about that crap. All I want is the feeling of the moment.”
That said, Buddy was a fairly early adopter of ProTools, and an oft-cited example that the software itself is not to blame for what others did with it.
“Yeah, well, I had a two-inch [tape] machine,” he says, ruefully. “For some reason in Nashville, a lot of homes have this RF interference. It’s like single-coil pickups, where you rotate the guitar until it stops buzzing. And I had to rotate this thing the size of a refrigerator until it would stop.”
And so he sold it. To Dan Penn, as it turned out, which is how they finally met.
“But it’s so much about the music, it’s about the feeling that’s going on when that music’s being played. I worked with [drummer] Brady [Blade] the past week, recording stuff, and Brady’s amazing. But with Brady there’s really one take that you get. We may play it twenty times, but there’s really one take when he is completely in the middle of it. I mean completely. And that’s the one that you have to go with, no matter what else you have to put up with on that track.
“At the end of every Brady song there’s like a potato chip bag being wrinkled or him laughing or something,” and Buddy’s laughing himself, because it’s all so much fun. “But that’s where you put the tambourine.”
And that’s why he makes records, that moment.
It’s why other people want to make records with him. That hunger? He just sent 300 possible song-choices to a prospective production client. “Julie said, ‘You’re nuts,'” he chuckles. “‘That’s just a way to overwhelm somebody and get them to think you’re crazy.'”
He’s not nuts, he just loves music.
“I heard somebody talking about the emotional impact that an MP3 has on you [being] different than vinyl or a CD,” he says later, and it may have been something I wrote. “Because that’s what it’s about, what it does to you. And what’s transmitted in whatever the heck it is with the zeros and ones or the little squiggles on the melted vinyl that gets to your ear from a song. I don’t care what it is, but if it affects you…and so that’s what I’ve been trying to check the meter on when I listen. It’s so convenient, the MP3 thing.”
I believe in the album. I believe in sequencing.
“Yeah, I’m completely with you,” he nods. “You spend so much time in mastering figuring out down to the tenth of a second between songs. You can feel the difference. You can definitely feel the difference.
“I remember the first time I went and put a record back on when I was transferring [vinyl to CD]. I’ve got an old MacIntosh amp and I plugged in the turntable and hooked up the speakers in another room. It just kind of almost hurts your heart, just putting the needle down and hearing the music come out. It’s either I’m really old or there really is a difference. And I think there’s a difference.
“The convenience, for me, to be able to take 3500 records on the road…I can take a library of every song I’m ever going to need…with anybody I ever play with, pretty much — that’s a great convenience. But I don’t feel like I’m getting emotionally hit by a train when I hear something. I think there’s something lacking in there.”
He pauses, we digress, come back to the subject: “It’s harder to make a record digitally. Harder to make it sound musical. It’s like soup, making soup with cold water, or a burner that’s not working.”
It was warm late into last fall. A happy shiny day. I was driving the little red truck with my little girl, just passing the freeway entrance, and the stereo was going and she was dancing in her car seat — I think to Little Feat — when the phone went off. For some reason we were headed out to her grandfather’s farm, probably to see the chickens. Dixie chickens. (Dinner, now.) The phone rings. It’s Buddy.
For some years I’ve volunteered backstage at the Americana Music Association Honors & Awards (we can’t call it the AMAs because then Dick Clark’s people will sue; they produce the American Music Awards, and have bigger lawyers). Buddy Miller leads the house band. He doesn’t have to, he just does. And because we know Buddy is in charge, everyone leaves the band alone; almost everybody wants to play with him, and it all works.
Anyhow. Last year the AMA gave Buddy a lifetime achievement award for his guitar playing. His younger sister works for Gibson — the company kind enough to provide the pieces and parts we turn into hand-crafted awards — and so we managed to get an unpainted guitar delivered to the illustrator Tim Shawl, who did a spectacular Howard Finster-esque folk art design on it. It was then lacquered and assembled and presented to Buddy onstage by his little sister, who refused to say a word but beamed the whole while.
Buddy mumbled something into the microphone and went back to his stool with the band.
A few weeks later, Buddy called to say thanks. I guess he knew I’d had a small hand in it, maybe he knew that I’m the one who gives Tim clues as to what images or words or ideas need to be conveyed on the awards.
I choked up. Nobody calls to say thanks, nor do I expect any. I think of myself as a tough bastard, but I’m not, especially not this week. And not then, either, apparently. And I said, very softly, “Buddy, you’re precious to me.”
I hadn’t really…known that, put it into words.
But he is. So are Jon Dee Graham and Steve Earle and Allison Moorer and Mike Ireland and Lizz Wright and Del McCoury and Mavis Staples. Alejandro Escovedo. Tom Gillam and Thao Nguyen, because they both want so badly they vibrate with want, and because they really are good enough. Hope Nunnery if she makes a couple more records as good as the debut she cut at 53. Some of whom I’ve met, some not. I don’t care about the meeting. I care…still…deeply…about the music they continue to make. About making art after it ceases to be easy to do so.
That’s not a complete list. It comes from the heart, and it’s not in order.
Maybe it’s out of order.
Make your own list. That’s what this is about.
Oh, yeah. First thing Buddy said when he sat down to talk: He used to be on that old AOL board. The one called “No Depression.”
There. That’s the beginning.
This long pile of prose probably ends ND co-editor and art director Grant Alden’s 21-year career [sic] writing about music. Or whatever this is about. What comes after…will probably still be about music, only it’ll be about something else. Thanks for coming this far