Catching Up With… Buddy Miller
By Andy Whitman
Veteran Americana artist Buddy Miller moves in lofty circles. Over the course of a two-decade career, he’s released eight highly-regarded roots albums, served as the go-to guitarist for Nashville icons (Emmylou Harris) and transplanted British superstars (Robert Plant), and produced recent releases from Patty Griffin and Plant’s Band of Joy. His new album, The Majestic Silver Strings, presents a guitarist’s dream band of Miller, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot and Greg Leisz paired with a host of stellar guest vocalists (Harris, Griffin, Lee Ann Womack, Shawn Colvin, Buddy’s wife Julie, and Chocolate Genius). Paste caught up with him on the verge of the new album’s release.
Paste: First, I know many people are anxious to know how you’re doing after your heart attack a couple years back. How is your health?
Buddy Miller: Thanks for asking. You know, I’m doing fine. It was a scary time, as you can imagine, and my recovery took about three months. I just had to rest, take it easy, which is hard for me to do. But on our last tour we played in D.C. and I visited my doctor, and he gave me a clean bill of health. So I’m doing okay.
Paste: I’ve always been impressed by your seemingly-encyclopedic knowledge of popular music. You seem to have a knack for resurrecting classic tunes that are slightly off the beaten path, and that reflect a deeper knowledge and familiarity than the obvious country standards. On the new album you pull out old chestnuts from Lefty Frizzell, Stonewall Jackson and Eddie Arnold. How did you choose the material for The Majestic Silver Strings album?
Miller: Basically, we just picked a bunch of old country songs that we loved and decided to tweak them a little. Or, in some cases, quite a bit, I guess. As far as Lefty Frizzell goes, I’ve been a fan of his music forever, probably since the 70s anyway. Shawn [Colvin] and I used to sing a bunch of Lefty covers in our band in the early 80s. But the particular Lefty song we covered on The Majestic Silver Strings really came from Patty [Griffin]. She’d been singing it, and it just seemed like a natural to include on the album. As for the others, they had just been around in various incarnations among the people I played with, and they fit in well with the overall tone of the album. We just wanted to mess with some old country songs.
Paste: How did this particularly inspired pairing of musicians come about? Who came up with the idea for you and Bill and Greg and Marc to record together?
Miller: Well, it probably started with Bill. I met Bill maybe twelve or thirteen years ago. It was just a little mutual admiration society. We appreciated one another’s work, and we talked casually, back and forth, about collaborating someday. We crossed paths occasionally, and we’d bring it up whenever we’d see one another. Greg was playing with Bill, and since you can’t make a country album without pedal steel, and Greg is the go-to pedal steel guy, he pretty much had to be in the band. Marc, of course, is just coming from a really different place. He plays guitar like nobody else, and we really wanted to incorporate some of the darker elements we knew he could bring to the mix. So we started scheming together long before the actual recording took place. We had to book our time together more than a year in advance because of the craziness of our schedules.
Paste: I love the interplay among the musicians on this album. The four of you are obviously very gifted guitarists, and yet it seems like you were able to avoid stepping on one another’s toes, and that your contributions are relatively equal across the space of the thirteen songs. Was that equitable approach easy to maintain?
Miller: It was. At least from my perspective it was. I think the bottom line here is that there was and is a lot of respect for each other. And that goes for not only the guitarists, but for David [Piltch, bass player] and Jay [Bellerose, drummer] as well. This was a pretty easy album to make. We recorded the album in the basement of my house, in my studio down there, and there are a number of rooms where people can spread out if they choose to do so. But we didn’t do that. We sat around in a circle and played. The singers, too. We were all in there together, working it out as we went. Bill really added his particular stamp on “Freight Train.” On “Dang Me,” the old Roger Miller tune, Marc added those middle-eastern touches. It was all pretty intuitive.
Paste: Let me ask you a little more about Bill and Marc. They’re obviously very different stylistic players from the more straightforward country and rock licks that you typically lay down in your solo albums. Can you give me some insight into the ways you went about arranging the songs? Was there a conscious tone that you were aiming for? Or did it emerge more organically just through the process of jamming together?
Miller: Well, it was a little bit of both. Certainly there was some planning. I think we started with forty of fifty possible songs, just a mix I sent out to everybody and said, “Hey, do any of these appeal to you?” And probably two-thirds of the songs that ended up on the album came from that initial mix. But from there it came down to the chemistry of working together. We didn’t really have arrangements per se. A good example is “Cattle Call,” the first song on the album. Bill laid down this amazing intro, and we said, “That’s it. Let’s go with it.” Everybody put their own stamp on the songs.
Paste: I assume that many of the collaborations on the album grew out of your previous musical collaborations. The one that threw me was Chocolate Genius (Marc Anthony Thompson), who does a terrifically twisted, irreverent version of Roger Miller’s “Dang Me.” How did you encounter Chocolate Genius? Was that through Marc Ribot’s influence?
Miller: Right, through Marc. Marc and Marc play together in The Crackers, and “Dang Me” is part of their repertoire. And yeah, what they ended up with is pretty far removed from the original, isn’t it? I always thought of that Roger Miller song as a happy, fun little tune, you know? But there’s this sinister desperation in those lyrics, and Chocolate Genius and Ribot’s guitar work really brought that out.
Paste: I saw a photo of you and Richard Thompson performing together on the recent Cayamo Cruise and realized that one of my Too Good To Be True musical moments had actually happened, and had come and gone. What was it like performing with Richard?
Miller: Wow, where to begin? You know we played “Keep Your Distance,” which Julie and I covered on our first official duets album, and which is one of Richard’s songs from twenty years ago or so. He had heard that we had covered it, and wanted to play it together. But it really could have been almost anything. I know and play so many of Richard’s songs, and I’m such a big fan. He wasn’t around for the entire cruise because of some previous commitments, but he came on board for a couple days, and yes, we played together. And really, I just tried to be his Luther Perkins, playing that boom-chicka-chicka riff, while he played what only he can play. It was a lot of fun.
Paste: Your first solo album wasn’t released until 1995, when you were in your early forties. But I know you were around, playing music in New York City with Shawn Colvin and Jim Lauderdale in the 1970s. What happened during the intervening years? Is there a hidden treasury of Buddy Miller music that we’ll learn about someday?
Miller: Oh, you know, let’s say that I was doing a lot of weird stuff and got sidetracked. And no, there’s no hidden treasury. Shawn and Jim and I were just young kids having fun. But yeah, I guess there was a lack of discipline and a lack of focus, or maybe the focus was just on other things. At any rate, I stopped playing entirely for a couple years. But we moved to Nashville and things started happening again. Julie recorded a couple albums for a Christian label, and I started playing again and producing other people.
Paste: I think the first time I heard your voice was on a Mark Heard tribute album from 1994, where you and Julie sang Mark’s song “Orphans of God.” I know that for me, and for a few other folks, Mark Heard was something of a hero, an honest, articulate Christian who wrote poetically about faith and doubt. And then to hear his words coming out of that big, soulful voice of Buddy Miller was a revelation for me.
Miller: Well, thanks. He’s a hero to me, too. I have his console and a lot of his studio equipment in my house. I’m sitting in front of some of it right now. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about Mark Heard.
Paste: You’ve been quite the busy guy of late, with the new album, guest appearances as a guitarist and vocalist, touring with the Band of Joy, and producing albums from the likes of Patty Griffin and Robert Plant. What do you have coming up in the near future?
Miller: Quite a bit, actually. I’m on a little hiatus right now, but the Band of Joy tour with Robert and Patty and Darrell Scott will continue through August. That’s been so much fun. Robert is loving it, and he just wants to keep it going. I’m going to be producing the next album from The Carolina Chocolate Drops, which I’m quite excited about. And I’ll be producing the new album from the three girls (Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin). And after that, I don’t know.
Paste: Are there any plans for the next solo Buddy album, or the next duets album with Julie?
Miller: Nothing official, but I hope it will happen. This year is pretty well booked, so the soonest it might happen is at the end of the year or the beginning of next year. I know Julie has written a batch of great new songs that I can’t wait to record.
Paste: Your career strikes me as uncategorizable, and I mean that in the best possible sense. You’ve incorporated elements of bluegrass, country, blues, soul, gospel, folk, and rock into the proceedings, and now with The Majestic Silver Strings you’ve added some jazz elements as well. I’m curious to know where you think the music might take you from here. Do you consciously think, “Hmm, next time I’d like to work in a different musical genre” or does this restless eclecticism happen more unconsciously?
Miller: I don’t know. I guess it’s all just good music to me. I was a hippie kid, went to Woodstock, that whole scene. And I got exposed to a lot of different genres; you know, The Grateful Dead and string band music and all those weird forms of the blues. In the early days of FM radio it was all fair game, and it was all mixed together. The only place you’ll hear that now is on satellite radio, places like Sirius XM. But the pot got stirred way back when, and I don’t even really think about it in terms of genres. I guess I don’t really hang out with purists [laughs].