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Buddy Miller uses the buddy system for "Midnight and Lonesome"

By Brian Baker, November 2002

Buddy Miller doesn't really have anything to prove at this point in his career. Not to his fans, who have no doubts about his musical greatness. Not to HighTone Records, the label which stands behind his releases with pride and respect. And not to critics, who have consistently lined up to sing his praises.

No, at this juncture along Buddy Miller's singular career path, after working in bands with Shawn Colvin, Jim Lauderdale and Emmylou Harris, the only person that he's trying to impress is himself.

So, it's no surprise that his latest album, the stellar "Midnight and Lonesome," was borne not of Miller's burning need to create or by way of industry pressure for him to produce something to satisfy a specific timetable, but simply because he saw a window of opportunity.

"I just looked at the calendar and realized I had a few weeks open and that I could get a record out this year - and I really wanted to - and it would have been eight months before I'd have another chance to get a record out," says Miller. "I thought, 'It's a little challenge. Let's do a record.'"

To that end, Miller assembled the rotating cast of usual suspects (wife/vocalist/songwriter Julie Miller, drummers Bryan Owings and Brady Blade, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, bassist Rick Plant, steel guitarist Al Perkins and Miller's Spyboy boss Emmylou Harris, among others) that have graced his three previous releases - "Cruel Moon," "Poison Love" and "Your Love and Other Lies" - to create "Midnight and Lonesome" in his Nashville home studio.

With so many elements overlapping from one release to the next, there is a danger that a certain amount of sameness will begin to permeate the proceedings.

Miller has always been aware of that possibility and has been careful to safeguard his work from that staleness while still trying to retain the singular identity that he brings to his solo work.

"To a certain degree, there are elements that are going to be the same," says Miller. "I like playing with the folks I play with, so I want to involve them in the record. I like the kind of music that I do, so there will be similarities in certain styles of songs. I pushed things in a couple of directions for me a little bit that were different on this record. I did a Percy Mayfield song ("Please Send Me Someone to Love") that I took to a little folkier place, and that for me was a little different. I wanted to some kind of jazz standard, I don't know why, but I wanted to do that. And I did a song on the Optigan ("When It Comes to You") which is a little bit different for me. I almost did the whole record on the Optigan."

The Optigan has long been championed by its modern user base, everyone from Devo's Mark Mothers-baugh to Tom Waits, and Miller has joined their illustrious company with a passion. The Optigan was first manufactured by a Mattel Toy subsidiary as a sort of home synthesizer, with its sounds created not by way of tubes or transistors, but through the use of 12-inch celluloid discs on which were encoded the wave patterns of real instruments.

"I don't remember where I first heard one, but I got hold of one several years ago," says Miller. "Matter of fact, I kind of had to use it on this record, or it was gonna go. Julie's been calling it 'the Optigone.' She wanted it out of the house. We have a limited amount of space, and it's rather big. It would not be out of place in the corner of an elderly couple's apartment. So, I got a hold of one and got one of their soul discs and loved it. It's easy to write songs with it. I'd love to do a whole record with it. Right now, I'm trying to figure out if we can fit it in the RV to take it on the road."

Along with the new and interesting nuances that Miller brought to "Midnight and Lonesome," he also applied his longstanding ethic to the album.

"I usually do my records real quick," he says with a laugh. "I consider them more like a postcard or a snapshot, what's going on at this particular three-week juncture in my life instead of a labored-over work. I just try to do them quickly and view them in that way. Just getting friends over and playing in the living room. That's something I want to be in there. I want the sound of the room and the sound of the house. And the sounds of the guys - Brady, one of the two drummers that I use, always makes his way onto the record, either talking or you can hear him while he's playing sometimes, just the noises he makes. And I never try to keep away from any of that or clean it up or clean up guitar buzzing. Guitar buzz in my house - it can either drive you crazy, or you embrace it as a sound. I try to keep what goes down with the track as true in spirit as I can to what's going on when we record."

It is that very spirit which distinguishes Miller's records from everything else coming out of Nashville. Although there is certainly a country vibe that emanates from Miller's musical endeavors, his work is just as strongly associated with blues, roots rock and pop in varying degrees.

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