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Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale: Alt-Country’s Dream Team

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Lauderdale and Miller react to being nominated for best duo for the 2013 Americana Honors [Photo by Chris Will …

It’s been a great season for alt-country duets records, as evidenced by three pairs of singers who just got nominated for favorite duo at the Americana Awards: Rodney Crowell & Emmylou Harris, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, and Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale. All these recorded pairings have been in the makings for decades, and it’s just a coincidence of timing—maybe overseen by the Louvin Brothers from up above—that these projects all finally came to fruition in the last six months.

The Buddy and Jim album is a particular delight, bringing together two of roots-rock’s most celebrated journeymen at last. It’s not as if they hadn’t already spent seemingly half their lives together, but somehow, getting those three joint days in the studio to cut an LP proved tougher than touring together for years, as backing cats or co-headliners. We can thank SiriusXM for half-forcing the collaboration by signing Miller and Lauderdale up to do a weekly satellite show on the Outlaw Country channel.

We found the duo doing some outlaw comedy when we sat them down together in Nashville recently to talk about their long history together, which has even extended to a bit of joint work for ABC’s Nashville series.

YAHOO MUSIC!: You’ve got to be sick of being asked what took so long to do an album together.

MILLER: Ask us, “What has been one thing keeping you from doing this record?”

Okay. What has been one thing keeping you from doing th—

MILLER: Timing. [Laughs.] And that’s what it was. Schedules didn’t align. We talked about doing a record together for 17 years. We almost made it 12 or 13 years ago. Then we got this radio show on SiriusXM that we do together, which has been a blast. I’ve got a bunch of studio junk in my house, and we have people come over and do a two-hour show each week; it’s an episode they replay six times each week. We thought if we have a radio show, this might not be a bad time to do our record, if we have three days in common. We had three days.

You already did the east coast and South, and now you’re touring the west coast…

LAUDERDALE: We’re available for weddings, parties…

MILLER: We can do other things while we’re playing the gig, in the breaks that we take. If you need errands run, a little baking…

But you guys have toured together a number of times over the years in various capacities.

MILLER: Yes. I was playing for years as Jim’s guitar player and harmony singer. We were out with Victoria Williams and my wife (Julie Miller) in a group called the Creek Dippers. And we opened for Emmy(lou Harris). That’s when I met Emmy, playing with you.

LAUDERDALE: It’s funny because when we met, Buddy was the king of the scene up there. There was a really cool country scene going on in New York from about ’79 to ’82. A lot of great players had migrated up there — including, oddly enough, a lot of folks from Austin.

MILLER: Julie and I moved from Austin. Thinking back, you’d think you wouldn’t want to leave Austin to move to New York City to play country music, but it was great.

LAUDERDALE: Then I’d moved out to L.A. and was just finishing a record with Pete Anderson which didn’t come out. But around that time Buddy quit playing for a while and he moved to L.A., so we got to play a bunch together again for several years. He was on a couple of my records in the mid-‘90s, again. And I knew it was a matter of time before Buddy would be more worldwide-ly known. And sure enough, that started happening, and his career arc has just been getting bigger and bigger.

MILLER: Ahhh, I don’t know if it’s an arc. But Jim got me my first deal, with Hightone. Basically He enabled a career to happen with me, when he sent Hightone Records my way when he couldn’t do a track for them. I did a track and I guess it didn’t stink that bad, and they called back a couple years later and asked me to do a record.

LAUDERDALE: You know what? I think you used the key word.

MILLER: “Stink”?

LAUDERDALE: I’m an enabler. [laughs]

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Lauderdale and Miller at the Grammy Museum [Photo: Chris Willman]

Buddy, I get the feeling you’re less comfortable being a solo frontman than Jim is. You’ve done a lot more support work over the years than headlining.

MILLER: I actually grew to really like playing and going out there and doing [headlining] dates. For a while I did a whole lot of them. Then things went a different direction. I got some tours. I probably opened a thousand dates for Emmylou, literally [while also performing in her backing band]. Then Robert Plant and Allison Krauss did that record and enlisted me into that band, and then Robert had me produce his next record. Then T Bone (Burnett) would call me to play on a bunch of records. And my (own) thing sort of just (got) dropped.

LAUDERDALE: That’s why I almost feel guilty that we have to do a follow-up for this record when you probably should be working…

MILLER: We should do our follow-up right now while the band sounds good.

LAUDERDALE: Great! Then that’s an official verbal commitment. But he’s so busy with all these huge, very high-profile things. Now with the Nashville TV show, too…

MILLER: I’ve been lucky. There’s been good work. I mean, in L.A., I literally went completely belly-up broke. Had to sell guitars at the end of every month to pay the rent. And I’d come to Nashville with Jim, and that’s when we decided to move here. I went into a convenience store and saw the little magazines with the houses for sale and went, “You know, I bet we could talk our way into a house, because they think of musicians almost as people here.” And we did.

LAUDERDALE: When I moved to Nashville, I rented the upstairs from Buddy and Julie.

MILLER: Until he found a possum under his bed. And I asked for a pet deposit, and then that was the end of our friendship for a short time. How’d you get that thing out of there, anyway?

LAUDERDALE: I chased him out with a broom.

MILLER: Did you really? It was a little baby possum, wasn’t it? Baby possums are pretty cute. You can dress ‘em up and stuff like that.

You’re both great songwriters, and I would think you’d be driven to record a wealth of material you want to get out. But your album is mostly cover songs, instead of the 10,000 original songs I’d guess you have in the can.

MILLER: He’s got that many great songs. You’ve got how many records in the can, ready to go?

LAUDERDALE: Three.

MILLER: Three, done and finished! I’m a bit slower and I need help. And I have a book full of cover songs I want to do. I like doing covers. But working with Jim has been a blast, too, with the co-writing we’ve done.

I hate to say it, but as estimable as you both are as songwriters, your cover of “The Wobble” might still be the best song on the album.

MILLER: It’s a classic. And it’s such a meaningful song. It touches me… There must have been a dance called The Wobble. Or [the songwriter] wanted one. I’d love to see if there’s any footage of somebody doing The Wobble. We had some wobblers last night.

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Lauderdale and Miller backstage in Nashville [Chris Willman]

How did you think in terms of harmony singing and trading verses on duets?

MILLER: Those George and Tammy records where they sing, they’d have to modulate… He’d sing a verse, and then they’d modulate to whatever key for her to sing a verse, and then they’d modulate back to sing together. But this is a different thing. It comes from the brothers, the Wilburn Brothers or Everly Brothers or Johnny and Jack or Sam and Dave, that kind of thing where there was a lot of singing together.

So you weren’t thinking about who’s George and who’s Tammy; you were thinking about who’s Phil and who’s Don?

MILLER: Maybe who’s Melba.

Buddy, you just produced an album for Richard Thompson. It’s interesting to see you two working together, because I always thought of your lead guitar sound as a little like Thompson’s, except he has epic solos and you’re the humble, economical guy who gets in and out of solos real quick.

MILLER: You can’t be a guitar player and not be influenced by Richard Thompson, these days. Whether you know it or not, if you’re a guitar player, you’re influenced by Richard Thompson. I happen to know it. A lot of guys, they might get it from generation to generation from somebody else who was influenced by Richard. But he’s one of the greatest guitarists of all times. And the first time I actually played with him, standing next to him, we were doing the song and we were going to put solos on it, and I almost couldn’t play — because I realized, “Everything I’m gonna play I probably stole from you, and I’ve got to come up with something a little bit more original if I’m going to stand next to you.”

Is there anything else in the pipeline?

MILLER: I’m going to be working with a band called the Wood Brothers. Then I’ve been working with T Bone Burnett. He’s the executive producer, and we’ve been coproducing a lot of those songs for the TV show on ABC called Nashville. And that’s actually been a blast and a real creative outlet. I’ve just grown to love the town Nashville so much more even just by working with all these writers that I kind of knew were there but didn’t really hear the songs that much up close. It’s been really great to get to know and hear all of the great songs that are here. Jim just got a song in there [on the show]. I think the music’s good, and these singers, I mean, to me… I don’t get to hear a lot of new country music that close up, but I don’t think they’re… They can’t be... Anyway, I won’t go there. [He’s obviously trying to avoid saying the actors on Nashville beat what’s happening in commercial country.] It’s at least as good as anything else being done in this town, as far as their vocals go. They can sing. And they’re not singers. I don’t think we’re… Never mind, I shouldn’t go there.

And Jim, you’ve really got three completed albums in the pipeline?

LAUDERALE: I’ve got an album in the can with Nick Lowe’s band; I went over to England last year. And a record in the can with James Burton and Al Perkins and some guys here. And then one with the North Mississippi All-Stars where I wrote all the songs with Robert Hunter. That’ll be our fifth record that we’ve written together that I’ve put out. I’m also working on a solo record to maybe put out at the same time, just me and guitar. And this is a perfect time for me to ask you, Buddy, if I could come over for about seven hours some day, maybe when you’re finished with the Wood Brothers. I’d like to have you do some things on it.

MILLER: You know he was mentioning Robert Hunter, who is the lyricist for the Dead. One of those records they wrote together, Jim had Ralph Stanley singing the lyrics of Robert Hunter. I thought, if you don’t do anything else in your life, that’s accomplishing enough right there. That’s a pretty wild and weird thing. On great songs, though, where it sounded like it made sense — where it sounded like an old song.

Jim, you might need to do something like Stephen King did in the early days, where he was writing so many books he put some out under a different name, since there are only so many Jim Lauderdale albums you can put out in a year.

MILLER: He’s finding that out!

LAUDERDALE: And now I have to make room, too, for the next Buddy and Jim record.

MILLER: The next one will be called Jim and Buddy. We need to change it up.

LAUDERDALE: I did put out a bluegrass record with Robert Hunter in the fall. But I waited to put out some of these other ones out so that we could put out this. It had been such a long wait, I wanted to jump on this chance.

You didn’t want it stacked up like a plane at JFK.

LAUDERDALE: When he’s ready to do the next record, I’ll delay some of these other ones.

MILLER: Who knows how many you’ll have in the can at that point?

It’ll be a challenge—one of those things like when you wash your car, it rains. So when I do another record, you’ll be ready.

And the SiriusXM radio show is continuing?

MILLER: It has to—we’re under contract for a year. We’re halfway there. But it’s been a blast. Besides new young artists and friends that we’ve had come over, we’ve had Tony Joe White, Bill Anderson, Bobby Bare, and Dan Penn just come and hang and tell stories and talk about records. Have you heard the show? It’s getting better. We’re working on it!

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