BLURTING WITH… Buddy Miller

The in-demand multitasker on his new
album with wife Julie, on working with all those other gals, on Robert Plant,
and more.

 

BY ANDY
TENNILLE

 

“I think
everything that I do is influenced by everything that I’ve done before,” Buddy
Miller reports from a Nashville studio in late January. “I try to learn something
from everybody I work with.”

 

In the more
than 40 years he’s been playing music, Miller – the celebrated 56-year-old
Nashville singer/songwriter, guitarist, and producer – has cribbed from the
likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, Gillian
Welch, Lucinda Williams and the Dixie Chicks. For the past year, he’s played
guitar on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ ‘Raising Sand’ world tour, earning a
chance to join the duo in the studio this winter for the recording of the
follow-up to their Grammy-award winning debut.

 

“Working with
T. Bone Burnett and Allison and Robert the last few weeks in the studio has
just been…well, there’s a lot to learn there,” he says with a humble laugh. “It’s
a wonderful thing.”

 

The consummate
musician’s musician, Miller’s joy for his craft is exceeded only by his humble
demeanor, a trait that likely served him working as sideman to so many artists.
Yet of all the tremendous talents Miller has worked with throughout his career,
none may be more influential on him as an artist than his wife, Julie. The
couple has worked together for more than 25 years, collaborating on each
other’s projects since Buddy engineered Julie’s 1990 debut, Meet Julie Miller.

 

“It’s an
unspoken thing for us,” Buddy explains. “We don’t have to talk about it before we
do it, we don’t have to talk about it while we’re doing it. It just happens and
seems to come from a place that we both feel it from.”

 

Written in Chalk, the Millers’ new album out this
month on New West Records, builds on the unspoken chemistry of their music, but
not in the way you might assume most duet records would.

 

 “We worked on all the songs together, but
there are some things where she’ll just sing, sometimes she sings with Patty
Griffin or someone else, and I don’t sing at all, just play” Buddy explains,
“and then there are songs when it’s just me or me with Patty. It’s different
from anything else we’ve done, I hope.”

 

(Editor’s Note: Three weeks after this
interview, Buddy suffered a heart attack after a concert in Baltimore, MD while
on tour with Harris, Griffin and Colvin. He was taken to Johns Hopkins
Hospital, where he underwent successful triple-bypass heart surgery. All of us
here at BLURT offer Buddy and Julie our best wishes for a speedy recovery.)

 

***

 

BLURT: How did this album come
together?

 

BM: Well, it
started a long time ago. Some songs are from a while back. The one that
probably goes back the furthest might be that song, “June.” Julie wrote it, and
we recorded it, the night June Carter passed away, which was several years back
now. (Ed. Note: June Carter Cash passed
away May 15, 2003
)

 

 

Yeah, almost six years ago, now.

 

BM: That song,
we didn’t re-record it. I just used the version we recorded that night, because
it felt like it fit into the story of the record. There are a few songs that
are pulled from things that we worked on, and then a bunch of newer songs, too.
So there’s not a simple answer. Most records I’ve worked on – mine or other
people’s – you get the songs, you have friends come over and play, and that’s
the record, basically. You work on it a few weeks, and that’s it.  This record was different. The songs felt they
were being pulled towards the record itself.

 

 

You mention that you kept the
original recording of “June” for the album. What was in the original
performance that you felt was captured or couldn’t be replicated on another
take?

 

BM: It just
felt right. Julie wrote it the day June Carter passed away, and we recorded it
that night. We weren’t friends with Johnny and June. We’d met them and opened a
show for them once, but they had such a big impact on us…on anyone, really.

 

So it seemed
like we shouldn’t touch it. Why would you, you know? It was recorded when the
air was…I remember it was raining that night and it was like nature was
responding to this tragic loss. Even though the track might not be perfect, it
just seemed like that’s what you’d want to use. It had the feeling our little
part of the world felt that night, from the air in the room to the way it’s
sung. I didn’t want to mess with that, and I don’t really go for making things
perfect anyway. It just felt right.

 

 

It sounds like Johnny and June and
the music they made together was pretty inspirational to both you and your
wife.

 

BM: Well, like
I said, we didn’t know them, except one show that we opened for them when John
first signed with American. We were asked to play the show, and they stood on
the side of the stage and watched us through the entire set. Afterward, John
came up to Julie and gave her a big bear and asked her what song of theirs we’d
sung. They were just so sweet. People don’t stand on the side of the stage and
watch the opening act. Hardly anybody does that I’ve seen anyway, but they were
just really warm, giving folks, and I think that’s just who they were. They had
that effect. As people, they were inspiring and the music, gosh, yeah.
Incredible.

 

 

I wanted to ask you about the
musical synergy that you have with your wife. You’ve worked with so many
different female artists over your career: Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Linda
Ronstadt, Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin…the list goes on and on and on and on.
Having worked with all of these fantastic female artists, what’s the special
magic that you have with Julie when y’all play together? Can you put it into
words?

 

BM: You know,
I sometimes wonder why I’ve worked with all these girls. I feel pretty lucky.
Working with Julie, we’ve been together a long time and just have a natural way
of singing together, because we know each other so well. But the longer we’ve
known each other, the harder it gets to work with one another, too.

 

 

Really?

 

BM: Oh gosh,
yeah. It’s a very natural thing and at the same time it can be just unbearable
for each of us. Almost impossible, really.

 

 

Because you know each other’s
idiosyncrasies and can sense each other’s frustrations better as the years go
on?

 

BM: Well,
sensing frustration is one thing, but there’s just no time to pretend, you
know? Whatever is there comes to the surface. Moving a couch with your partner
can be difficult enough but working on music together can be just excruciating.
That’s another reason it took awhile, ‘cause the record changed forms a few
times. It started out in the direction of being Julie’s record, and then I was
gonna do the record. About halfway through, we decided to make it the two of us.
So it’s the two of us, but it’s not a duets record in the traditional sense. We’re
not singing every song together.

 

 

Tell me about Julie as an artist and
a musician.

 

BM: Well, I’m
obviously a little biased, but she’s really my favorite writer, or right up
there with some of my other favorites. It’s incredible to me how she keeps
music in a very special place where it can’t be calculated. In the town we live
in (Nashville), and probably in other big music towns, songwriting is like a
business. Songwriters get together in little rooms at ten, twelve and two to
write, sometimes just to write a song and sometimes to write a song for a
specific artist.  More often than not,
they get together with somebody they’ve never even met before. I think that’s
how it works, cause I’ve never done it before. But to Julie, it’s almost like a
sacred thing. You don’t want to calculate it, and you don’t want to manipulate
it. That’s not to say it always works, and every song is unbelievable that she
writes, but I do see that it’s a very special thing to her and not taken
lightly. I respect that so much. And I love her singing. She’s just free. Parts
come to her seemingly out of the air, and songs do, too. She’ll just start
singing something and a song will appear. She’s very different from anybody
I’ve ever worked with. It’s inspiring to watch.

 

 

I did a story a couple of years ago
on the record that Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler recorded together. One of
the things that Mark said was that he and Emmy were constantly talking about
finding the third voice, meaning that when they sang together, a unique third
voice was born. Is that something that you aspire to when you record with other
female artists or specifically with Julie? Are you searching for that third
voice as well?

 

BM: Yeah, it’s
funny you ask about that. I didn’t know that about Emmy and Mark, but we would
say the same thing. You don’t think about it. I don’t anyways. But you know
when it happens. You’ve got something that’s you, something that’s her, and
then something that’s part of both of you. That’s the way I always thought
about it. It’s like with harmoniums or some organs, they have stops you pull
out where you’re playing one note but it just makes a different and a fuller sound.
It’s its own thing.

 

 

Is that a sign of the best
collaborations? When you achieve that?

 

BM: Yeah. I
never think about it when I’m singing because I’m just lost in singing, but
when it happens, you know it. Everyone knows it.

 

 

When you’re working on material
either for an album for yourself or on something with Julie, is the songwriting
process collaborative?

 

BM: It used to
be that we’d sit down for the whole process, but she’s become so good at it on
her own. I need her more than she needs me as far as the writing goes. I’ll
come to her with what I’ve got and ask her to help me. Or I’ll go to a friend
like Lauderdale if I think I’ve got something up his alley. That’s another nice
thing about this town: everybody’s pretty close together. Jim’s just a few
blocks away, and Julie’s usually just downstairs or with the animals. Once in
awhile, she’ll ask me to kind of flush out what she’s got as far as playing it
on the guitar. She’ll come up with the guitar hooks or whatever you call them. “Smooth”
has this guitar thing that I play, but Julie came up with it. When she was
writing it, she knew what she wanted but couldn’t quite play it, so she sung it
to me and told me what I was doing wrong until I got it. That’s kind of how we
work together.

 

 

In a bio of yours I read, it said
this about your decision to record in your home: “A living room, a Pro Tools
rig, and a complement of vintage mikes make, somehow, an environment no proper
studio can.” Why do you love to record at home?

 

BM: There’s
just something about being in the house that feels right. All the musicians
that I work with are our dear friends, so it’s just like friends coming over to
hang out at the house. It’s also less people. In the studio, there always seems
to be more people hanging around. When I work on something of ours, I tend to
not get an engineer. Anybody else’s record I produce, I’ll get an engineer and
assistant engineer, but for me, working on our stuff, I like as few people
around as possible. We have a pretty big house that’s like 100 years old. It’s two
stories and the whole downstairs is just dedicated to recording, with pretty
good lines of sight between all the rooms so everybody can see each other. It
feels good. I don’t have to think about anything else but what we’re doing. It’s
really natural and it sounds good, too.

 

 

Do you still record to tape?

 

I used to have
a Studor two-inch tape machine when I moved to town that would rattle when it
was used. It was like the size of a refrigerator, and the buttons on the remote
that somebody made for it would go flying off when I pressed too hard.
Eventually, it ended up in the middle of the living room, and one Christmas, Julie
ended up decorating it with holly. It started rattling one night when we were
using it and the holly fell into the tape and tore up the tape. That’s about
the time I made the switch to Pro Tools. (Laughs)

 

 

Tell me about “Gasoline and
Matches.” It’s one of my favorite tunes on the album.

 

BM: Well, it’s
funny the way songs get started. Julie started that song and wrote most of it,
and I think I was upstairs hanging out with her while she was sitting with a
guitar in her lap. I was getting up to go downstairs to work on something and
as I was walking away, she just started singing “Baby, baby, baby, baby,” off
the top of her head. That’ll happen sometimes, but this time she was doing it
to sort of keep me around. I was halfway out the door and had to come back in
because I liked it. I stuck around awhile to help her get it down and then
before we recorded it, we finished whatever was needed. I forget what it
needed, but it didn’t need much. It was pretty much written in less than an
hour.

 

 

 “Ellis County” kicks off the album, and the
protagonist sings about their longing for the past. Is that reflective of your own
affinity or nostalgia for what’s come before?

 

BM: In a way,
it is. That’s a special song Julie wrote specifically for her mother. That’s
basically her mother’s story song. Everything in it is based on fact. One thing
about Julie’s writing is most everything she writes is true.

 

 

Tell me about the track you recorded
with Robert Plant.

 

BM: That was
cool. We cut it between soundcheck and before dinner on his and Allison’s tour.
I waited ‘til we were at a venue with a nice, big dressing room and asked the
guys in the band if they’d be into it. They brought their drums and upright
bass, and I set up some mics in the dressing room and just cut it live. We did
it super fast and cut everything, including the vocals, live. I think we played
the song twice through and got it.

 

That song
probably wasn’t either of ours first choice. He had some ideas, and I had some
ideas, and we talked about them. Somehow, we ended up with this old Lefty Frizzell
song. It just seemed like it would be a cool duet. And it was. I loved that
band and playing with Robert. He’s just a wonderfully generous guy.

 

 

Did you know that you wanted to do a
song with Robert, or was it that you had a particular song in mind and were
looking for the perfect person to work with it on? How did it come together?

 

BM: We were
playing in L.A. and I had a meeting with New West, my label. The record was
done, so I went over there, but they said it’s too late to come out this year, which
was last year. So I came back after the meeting and at dinner Robert said, “How’d
it go with New West?” I told him everything went well, but it won’t come out
until next year. After dinner, he said, “Well if you need me for anything, let
me know.” It took me about a half a second to respond. I hate to take advantage
of people but hey, if Robert Plant offers…

 

 

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