Playing with Guitars
Buddy Miller's not one for big talk. Take Dogtown Studio, which occupies the downstairs of the Nashville home he shares with his writer-musician wife Julie: "I wouldn't call it a studio. I fool people -- they call it a studio, and I guess when I have to be around professionals, I call it a studio so I can hold my head up high." So, just between us? "Really, it's a house full of junk. Good junk. A lot of really good gear that I’ve collected. But I wouldn’t call this house a studio. It's a house, and I like keeping it that way."
An expert axeman, Miller comes across as a genial homebody who would probably prefer playing with his toys to chatting about his work — unless the topic of conversation is one of those toys, like the instrument he plays on the peppily retro "When It Comes To You" on the upcoming HighTone release Midnight and Lonesome.
"It's the coolest thing," he says of the Optigan, Mattel’s '70s forerunner of today’s sampling technology. "They look like a real cheesy console organ that would sit in the corner of a room ….You stick something in there, like a 12-inch record, only it’s not vinyl, it’s whatever you make floppy disks out of. And you can see through it, and when you hold it up to the light there’s concentric circles on it. And there’s probably 40 or 50 different disks you can put in there." The discs play "what today you’d call grooves, in every different key. You use the chord buttons on the left-hand side, and it has a speed thumbwheel, so you get the tempo you want, and then you change the chords. I wanted to do my whole record with it!"
Miller has employed his hi- and lo-tech gizmos as a sideman to Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Midnight Oil and Kinky Friedman, among others. As a singer and performer, he’s released three solo albums and contributed to all of Julie’s solo albums. The duo’s Buddy and Julie Miller earned a Grammy nomination for best contemporary folk album of 2001, so clearly he knows what he’s doing. Music isn’t something he intellectualizes. "I don’t put a whole lot of -- how would you say? -- I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out what the record’s gonna be before I make it. I just want to go in and see where I’m at. And you know, sometimes that’s not a good idea!" He laughs. "But I still kind of look at [my albums] as more like snapshots than creating some big thing."
Miller’s focused but instinctive approach allows him to work quickly; Midnight and Lonesome, a stylistic potluck supper of originals, co-writes and covers, took three weeks. Yes, it was a little late, but that’s because the Millers spent the last day of mixing watching CNN’s coverage of the rescue of the nine trapped miners in Quecreek, Penn. "Julie was really moved. I woke up the next morning, and there was a song on my desk. So I thought,
I gotta record this." Julie Miller’s "Quecreek," a spare blend of the Millers’ harmony vocals, acoustic guitar and Tammy Rogers’ fiddle, has the flavor of a broadside ballad and an unforced testimony of faith: "The miners were buried three nights and three days / But like Jesus Sunday morning all nine men were raised."
"It was a series of miracles that had them rescued," muses Miller. "When that bit broke and they thought, well that’s it — if they’d kept drilling with it they’d have hit water and they’d have all drowned. It was pretty moving, and just a piece of something good in this year."
Miller says that his Christian faith wasn’t shaken by the events of September 11th, but "it kind of just woke something up, maybe a little bit more. I think it did for the whole country, at least for a little while. We were pretty much just floating along."
While Midnight and Lonesome has the inevitable 9/11 song, "Water When the Well Is Dry," penned by Miller and Bill Mallonee (Vigilantes of Love), is far less pointed than other Ground Zero-based efforts. "I didn’t want it that specific," says Miller. "Whenever it would get specific, I’d kind of pull it back."
Buddy and Julie Miller came out a week after the towers came down. "We had an in-store we were supposed to do, and some dates we were supposed to do, and gosh, it just felt so…" Adjectives won’t work; Miller is a man of action. "You need to keep going, keep doing things, but you just feel like this isn’t anything that we need to be doing right now. It’s not important, and it just seems so foolish. But there was good that came out of doing them." About "Water," he says: "I just wanted to have something [so] that, at least for myself, I remembered it in a certain way."
Even so, Miller prefers to look forward, rather than back. He squirms at questions about a time when he and Julie gave up music because of their then-interpretation of Christianity, saying that it’s something he tries not to keep in the "memory bank" anymore. "It’s had an effect in a bunch of different ways, some of them good, some of them not good. And I guess thinking about it, I guess there’s a reason for it. You don’t know how you get to the place you’re at, but I’m really happy with where we’re at right now, and how things are, and how I feel about life. So it’s all good, as they say down here."
Told that fellow self-effacing guitarist Richard Thompson once also quit the biz for spiritual reasons, living in a Muslim commune and trying to ply the antique trade, Miller brightens: "I didn’t know that! He sold antiques? Well, you know, that’s kinda cool. He probably got some pretty cool things -- got to keep all the guitars…."