Fri, Mar. 1st, 2013
Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale
with Max Gomez
Buddy and Jim
Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale New West Records
Friendship is at the heart of one of the best albums of the year.
Brother-acts like the Louvins, the Everlys, the Delmores, and others have created some of our most memorable music, but every once in awhile that same kind of intuitive harmony exists between close friends like Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale.
Long embraced as two of Nashville’s most beloved singer-songwriters, the pair have been singing together more than thirty years and have now joined forces to create Buddy and Jim, a collection of perfectly produced gems that explores the highs and lows of love and continues the long tradition of male duet acts. Produced by Grammy winner Miller, the record contains a track list that juxtaposes playful songs of joy right against mournful tunes of longing.
Miller is a multi-instrumentalist, an acclaimed singer-songwriter, and has become one of the most sought-after producers in the business, producing widely praised albums by Solomon Burke, Patty Griffin, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and music from the hit television show “Nashville”. Two-time Grammy winner Lauderdale is one of the top songwriters in the industry, with songs recorded by some of the most recognizable names in music, and has a rabid cult following of his own music. The two met on the New York City music scene in the 1980s and have collaborated ever since. These days they’re even co-hosting a popular radio show on Sirius XM Outlaw Radio. For the last couple decades they’ve flirted with the idea of doing a record together, and have finally made it happen.
When the opportunity arose, they didn’t waste any time. The album was recorded in three days, although Miller laughs that “it sounds more like it took four.” He mixed the record in just two days. Despite the short timeframe, the album does not lack in depth. In fact, Miller believes that the quick turnaround preserved some of the energy that happened in the studio. “I don’t like to over-think or second guess,” he says. “I don’t want things to be able to mold over for long periods.”
Lauderdale says Miller succeeded. “The magic is preserved,” he says. “That’s why he’s one of the best producers today.” But Lauderdale also acknowledges that their long friendship is the main reason that the album works. “We’ve known each other for so long, done harmony for so long, that our voices fit really well together, and we have a good intuitive feel for each other. And we also manage to show our influences while also making it our own.”
That sound somehow manages to strike the balance of being retro and completely new at the same time by paying homage to influences like Sam and Dave or Johnnie and Jack while also bearing the stamp of two artists who have firmly established their signature sounds.
Until he paints his masterpiece…
Pop stardom has, for many years, attuned listeners to the arrival of shining new faces filled with vital new ideas, to which attention must be paid. Instantly. Briefly, for the most part.
It says here that there is another path, at least if what one cares about is music, and not celebrity. The steady lines in Buddy Miller’s face, the passions which abide within his voice, and the effortless inflection of his guitar…all matched against words given shape by and with his wife, Julie, her writing and singing voice twining against his…they speak, as well, to the arrival of genius. Just not clothed in the baggage of youth.
It works like this: Malcolm Gladwell (the brilliant and best-selling synthesist of the varied research which seeks to explain how our brains work) recently summarized the research of a University of Chicago economist named David Galenson, who has been studying the age at which genius presents itself to the world. Two paradigms emerge. The precocious Pablo Picasso arrived as daunting and fertile talent in his early 20s, while the meticulous Paul Cézanne did not have an exhibition of his paintings until he was 57. Gladwell has also been advancing the thesis that it takes 10,000 hours to acquire mastery of any given skill.
This explains the slow, steady career arc of Buddy and Julie Miller.
Buddy will be 56 when Written in Chalk hits stores, though his work has been on regular exhibit since his wife, Julie (who is somewhat younger), began recording in 1990, and more so since he finally started making his own records in 1995. If his genius has not yet been widely recognized, no matter; the other musicians, they know. (There was a reason the final print edition of No Depression magazine proclaimed him to be artist of the decade, and it was not simply the mercurial humor of the magazine’s two editors. It was the music.)
He has been a singer, and the successful writer and co-writer of songs other people sang, many of them country stars, including the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack, and Brooks & Dunn. He has been a multi-instrumentalist and harmony singer for a succession of acclaimed performers, beginning with Julie, and then in prompt succession Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams. And, most recently, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. And he has produced records – in the studio he built in their home — released separately under his name and Julie’s, and bearing their names together (as with Written in Chalk). That same living space has produced acclaimed albums by Solomon Burke, Allison Moorer, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
For some years it was Julie who stood center stage, first back in Austin, Texas, where they met (she didn’t want the band to hire him), then in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and, finally, Nashville, where they settled in 1993, a short drive from Music Row. Along the way the Millers became close friends and supporters of Shawn Colvin, Jim Lauderdale, Peter Case and Victoria Williams, played in bands with guitarists Larry Campbell and Gurf Morlix, and drummer Don Heffington.
Worked on their art, slowly, surely. Perhaps uncertainly, but working, always. Beginning in 1990 Julie released four albums within the Christian market, and then two on the now shuttered roots label HighTone. Her last one, Broken Things, came out in 1999. Buddy has so far made five proper long players under his own name, though Julie’s singing and writing voice is ever-present throughout. And then, at last, in 2001, they finally, formally released an album under both names.
Eight years later, one of the most respected creative teams in Nashville — and beyond — has returned with a new suite of songs.
All things being equal, it’s a remarkable accomplishment. Both the album, and its making. Julie has had a tough time of it. Some years back she was diagnosed with fibromylgia (which is characterized by muscular pain, fatigue, and sleep deprivation), and so has had to cope with the ravages of a chronic illness. Five years ago her brother, Jeff Griffin, was struck by lightning while mowing their parents’ yard. She is a woman who feels deeply, and there is a careful emotional raggedness to many of the songs she unveils here. (And an unexpected helping of humor and joy, and abiding faith, too.)
And Buddy…he’s just been busy. In the two weeks he had set aside to finish this album last spring — originally simply to have been another Buddy Miller album — he was also trying to learn several dozens of songs he would be playing on tour with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. And to remember how to play the steel guitar he’d agreed to bring along for that gig. In between lining up production gigs, and the like.
It didn’t get done. Or, rather, Written in Chalk didn’t get finished during that particular two-week slot, though he tried. But instead of simply meeting a deadline and turning in what he had finished, Buddy set the album aside and went back onto the road. This left time and room for a duet with Robert Plant (which they played publicly for the first time as part of the Americana Music Association’s 2008 Honors & Awards last September), and the additional gestation time seems to have emboldened Julie to become a full partner in the process. (Indeed, Buddy has only one co-write, and the balance of the album, save his well-chosen covers, comes from Julie’s pen.)
Buddy was born near Dayton, Ohio, to an Air Force family, and mostly raised in Princeton, New Jersey. Julie Griffin was born and raised in Waxahachie, Texas. They met, in 1975, in Austin, when he auditioned for a band she was in. She didn’t take to him right off, but they’ve been married a long time.
Only a couple of such confidence and competence could chance the emotional honesty of Written in Chalk. Only musicians of such renown could round up collaborators like Larry Campbell (who has played with Dylan, Levon Helm, and one or two others), keyboard player John Deaderick (Dixie Chicks, Mindy Smith), drummer Brady Blades (Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle), and singers like Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and that guy who used to be in Led Zeppelin.
But, in the end, only Buddy and Julie Miller could make a record this good.
—written by Grant Alden
Undaunted, Lauderdale signed with the Bluewater music publishing firm in Nashville, where his compositions found immediate success in the contemporary country world. Additionally, he sang backup on records by Yoakam, Lucinda Williams, and Rosie Flores and toured with everyone from Freedy Johnston, Nick Lowe, and Hootie & the Blowfish to Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. He earned another shot with Reprise and issued his debut album, Planet of Love, in 1991, with production from Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal. The album was greeted with strong reviews by many critics, who hailed Lauderdale as a major new talent. Still, it would be three years before he would release another record; he returned in 1994, now on Atlantic, and issued two acclaimed albums over the next two years in Pretty Close to the Truth and Every Second Counts. In 1996, he moved over to roots label Rounder's Upstart subsidiary for Persimmons, yet another critical success.