Sign up for newsletter
 

Buddy Miller wanders into music career

By Joel Bernstein, September 1997

Some singers pursue a recording contract more ardently than others. But few pursue it less ardently than Buddy Miller did. Miller was a professional musician for more than 20 years before he ever recorded, and when his chance finally came, it was almost pure serendipity.

Even when Miller had one of his songs covered by one of country music's biggest selling acts, it was still through no real effort on his part - a remarkable occurrence considering many people in Nashville work so hard to place their songs with hit artists.

Now, with the release of "Poison Love," Miller's second album recreating country music past, he has become a major figure in country's underground.

Growing up in the Sixties near Dayton, Ohio, Miller loved many kinds of music, including punk and psychedelia, but it was country and bluegrass that he pursued professionally.

While he cites Elvis as his earliest major influence, Miller says the real magic moment in his musical life came when he first heard a duet by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. "I really knew my fate was sealed," he says of that event, "I really love the two part stuff. Any kind of duet."

Miller has literally wandered America in his musical pursuit. He left Ohio when he answered an ad in Rolling Stone or The Village Voice - he can't remember for sure - and joined a band based around Woodstock, N.Y.

In the early seventies, he moved to Austin. There he found a musical partner and eventually wife in Julie Miller. He later lived in New York City, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, before settling in Nashville.

In the 70s, Miller had a band in Austin called Partners In Crime, which included Julie and future folk-rock star Shawn Colvin. They came to New York to play at The Lone Star Cafe at the height of the Urban Cowboy craze. Miller liked it.

"It looked like there was a lot going on there. I was young enough to think that I could make country records in New York." So his group, now called The Buddy Miller Band, took a bite of the Big Apple. The most enduring result was his meeting and forming a professional partnership with Jim Lauderdale, who later relocated to California.

Fast forward to the late Eighties. The L.A. alternative country scene has started to explode, and has been immortalized on the brilliant "A Town South of Bakersfield" series. California based Hightone Records, originally a blues label, was branching into country. They decided to put out a sampler featuring their own artists and some new acts as well.

Lauderdale was asked to be on it, but he had just signed with Epic (a deal which saw nothing ever released) and was unavailable. He recommended his accompanist, Buddy Miller.

Miller didn't even have any songs ready, but he finished up a couple he'd been working on. When the album, appropriately titled "Points West: New Horizons in Country Music," it included Miller singing his own songs, the made-for-George-Jones "The Garage Sale" and "Feels Like I'm Fallin' In Love."

And that seemed to be that. Miller eventually decided it was too expensive to live in Los Angeles. "Our little house rented for $1,600 a month. We could be buying a place in Nashville and be paying less money."

But four years after the release of "Points West," Hightone called. "I had just moved to Nashville. I wasn't trying to get a record deal. I didn't even have any songs finished," Miller says.

One thing that made Miller attractive to a label was his home studio. Assembled almost piece-by-piece, the little bit of equipment in Miller's living room is not state-of-the-art. But it does let him cut an album on a small budget. It also gives Miller's music the kind of low-fi sound that spawned the musical term "garage band."

The rough edge to Miller's albums may frighten Top Forty fans, but for some people it's a heavenly antidote to the polished smoothness of most new albums. "We cut it live in the living room and leave it alone," is how Miller describes the process. "I want to leave it sounding raw."

Once Miller's first album, "Your Love And Other Lies," was released, good things started happening. Mainstream country producer Don Cook heard the album and had Brooks & Dunn cut "My Love Will Follow You," giving Miller a financial windfall and industry credibility as a songwriter.

The album also helped him get a job with Emmylou Harris. He and Julie serve as the opening act and then Buddy works as her lead guitarist. He will fill the same role with Steve Earle for a month after Emmylou's European tour ends.

And Miller's songs, which sound like they had to have been written in the fifties or sixties, will likely be in more demand. Yet, he retains the same low-key approach to making music. "I'm just glad to be able to make a record. I wouldn't have finished this batch of songs otherwise."