"I came to Nashville with a two-inch tape machine and just hoped to start up a home studio, get some work and do some gigs. I thought, ‘How much worse can it be than LA?’”
Now, more than 20 years after he arrived in Music City, Buddy Miller must reflect that things have turned out pretty well. That is, of course, if he ever has the time.
"Buddy first fell for the Wandre he cradles here (above) when he saw it in the window of a Colorado pawn shop…
“It’s just so ugly that I guess nobody ever wanted it,” he says of the Wandre, which was sold under the name of Noble USA at the time. “It had a price tag of $85 and after I walked by for three days and it was still there, I went in and offered $50. He said, ‘Sure, not a problem.’
"So I took it to the gig that night, more as a joke – it had flatwound strings, but it sounded really good. They had four more in the shop and a year later I bought them all. It took me a year to save up the $200.
“Because I play with women quite a lot, I like to use baritone guitars. When they’re singing in ‘girl keys’, by playing low you can cover the low-end, be the bass, but still play some beautiful sparkly stuff.
"On acoustics, I’m a Gibson guy; I’ve always liked the thump. There’s something in the low-end of a J-45 that I just can’t find in any other guitar. I like a guitar that when I pick it up, it’ll sound like a record: I’ll think, ‘Gosh, that’s that Bob Dylan record,’ then I’m transported. I don’t want a clear sparkly sound, I just want a rich clear sound that I’ve heard on an old record. My main guitars are a ’54 J-45 and an early 30s L-00.”
When he’s not producing the hit US TV series Nashville, or careering around the globe playing guitar with the likes of Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Steve Earle, the Grammy Award winner is hunkered down in the recording studio that occupies the ground floor of his home.
Oh, and in between times he works with his wife, Gospel singer Julie Miller, and has a weekly radio show with fellow Grammy winner and country singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale.
“I have this attitude, I guess from being so broke for so long,” Buddy begins. “After that I had this mentality of any work that comes along, I had to take it – anything! You have to pay bills and I like to work. I wish I’d moved here 20 years before I did. As far as music goes, there’s no place like it.
"There’s an awful lot of quality music coming out of this town, even though you might not think that when you turn on the radio,” he laughs. “That’s one of the things that kept me from moving here when I lived in California. I was thinking, ‘Well, you haven’t tried Nashville yet, but I guess that’s the bottom of the barrel!’”
It’s easy to understand why his guitar playing is in such demand. Buddy Miller is the consummate sideman. To see him on stage with Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy is a textbook exercise in how to make your presence felt, without overplaying your hand – whether he’s adding double-note country bends on his 60s Wandre guitar (he’s been called “the best Tele picker without a Telecaster”) or laying down huge washes of ambient sonic wizardry with his Danelectro Baritone.
Rags To Riches
Raised in New Jersey, Buddy came under the spell of country music when he was just out of short trousers.
“At high school, my home was equally distant to New York and Philadelphia, so I got a real mix of stuff. There were great places to hear folk music in New York City, a country music station out of Philadelphia, and I’d also get to see TV shows like The Porter Wagoner Show. I just got hooked on that music,” he recalls.
“We didn’t have any money, but if you liked music, it was a good place to live. Later on, I had a friend who worked at the Fillmore East [in New York City], so I also ended up getting drawn into that whole psychedelic scene, bands like Moby Grape and Love.”
After then living in California in band houses with what he recalls were often 12 people and as many dogs, Buddy and his wife, Julie, moved to Nashville. They were, he admits, “completely broke”, but did own a 24-track recording deck, benevolently supplied to Julie by her record company.
“Julie had just been dropped by her Gospel label. She’d taken homemade demos to the record company and they said they were better than the ones she was getting in the studio – she’s sort of ‘unproduceable’, a little too nutty.
"They said, ‘Take your budget, buy some gear and make a record at your house.’ Now, we didn’t have a house, but they didn’t know that,” Buddy laughs. “But I thought if we played our cards right, we could talk our way into a house in Nashville.
"The rents were so cheap and, incredibly, though we were totally bankrupt musicians, we were somehow able to talk our way into buying a house. In Nashville, I realised immediately, there was a whole different attitude towards musicians and creative performers. It turned out to be a wonderful place.”