He’s more than their collaborator, their guitar voice or their harmonizer.
As the title of their joint January tour suggests, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin share a common fondness for their Buddy.
In a career that stretches back three decades, Buddy Miller has been a songwriter whose music reflects an unwavering sense of country spiritualism and tradition. As a guitarist, his vocabulary has run from earthy picking to rich atmospherics. But for the current “Three Girls and Their Buddy Tour,” Miller will again be in the company of artists with whom he has worked separately and extensively over the years.
In a conservation from the Nashville home Miller shares with his foremost leading lady - singer, songwriter and wife Julie Miller - he made no secret of his excitement in collaborating with the “three girls” or his admiration for each as an artist.
“When I heard about the possibility of this tour, it just sounded like too much fun,” Miller said. “Just to be a fly on the wall when they get together will be great.”
The “Three Girls and Their Buddy” jaunt falls in the middle of an especially fruitful time for Miller. Last fall, Levon Helm, former drummer and vocalist for The Band, chose “Wide River to Cross” (a tune Miller co-wrote with Julie) as the finale tune of his first full studio album in 25 years. Among those who also have cut Miller’s tunes: The Dixie Chicks, Solomon Burke and Brooks & Dunn. In May, Miller will be the guitarist for a European tour by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Other wildly varied artists he has played behind include Frank Black, Lucinda Williams and Midnight Oil.
Such activity makes for some high-profile elbow-rubbing. But in conversation, Miller seemed genuinely confounded about how one blessed artistic opportunity after another has come his way.
“Don’t ask me how any of this has happened,” he said. “I don’t have a clue. I’ve gotten further with less than anybody I can think of. I’m a lucky guy.”
Chances are good that Harris, Griffin and Colvin - Buddy’s Angels, if you will - would have plenty to say about Miller’s musical integrity. For now, this is Miller time.
Here’s what Buddy had to say about the Girls:
At an outdoor festival along the Ohio River in Louisville a little more than five years ago, Patty Griffin was without the services of her usual touring mate, guitarist Doug Lancio. Her Buddy, though, was on hand. After a strong Sunday-afternoon performance with Julie, Miller returned to accompany Griffin during a 45-minute set full of folkish introspection that included some of the Austin, Texas, songsmith’s finest works. Among the gems: “Mary,” “Tomorrow Night,” “Flaming Red” and the comparatively whimsical “Making Pies.”
For fans of either performer, it was a thrilling and rare pairing of two celebrated artists. But Miller, ever the perfectionist, thought he let Griffin down.
“Oh, I remember that show,” he said. “I remember it completely. I just wanted to do so good for her at that show, so I spent some time getting the guitar sounds down and everything. But just before her set, my pedal board, which is what I play to get those sounds, completely went out. I had nothing other than the basic sound of my guitar. A lot of that ethereal sound attached to the record Patty had at the time (“1,000 Kisses”) I couldn’t get. I just thought, `Rats.’”
Miller remembers well when he met Griffin. He and Julie were opening a concert for Jim Lauderdale in Maine, Griffin’s home state. Griffin was, by Miller’s estimation, one of 12 patrons in attendance.
“Later on, after I joined Emmylou’s band, I came across a cassette of a record Malcolm (Burn) had produced of Patty’s music. It never came out, but I took the copy we had home. Julie and I were awestruck. Our love and respect for her songs have only deepened.”
Harris, Griffin and Miller have been frequent visitors on one another’s recordings. Harris cut two Griffin tunes - “Falling Down” (with Linda Ronstadt) and “One Big Love” (with the Millers) on the albums “Western Wall” (1999) and “Red Dirt Girl” (2000). Harris and the Millers also guest on Griffin’s “A Kiss in Time” (2003) and “Impossible Dream” (2004). In addition, Harris had a cameo on Griffin’s 2007 Grammy-nominated album “Children Running Through.”
“I just love Patty,” Miller said. “Her songs move me like nothing else.”
The musical links that Miller has shared with Harris and Griffin have been well documented over the past decade, but projects with folk stylist and singer Shawn Colvin have been less familiar to fans. Curiously, Miller was playing with Colvin long before he met Harris or Griffin.
“It all goes back so far,” Miller said. “I can’t even remember exactly when it started. We met in Austin, which is where we both lived at the time. Shawn was in a band called the Dixie Diesels. Even then, her voice was incredible.”
Miller estimates the time as the mid-‘70s, an era that also saw a young Colvin joining another Austin band led by Miller. Collaborations continued when the two took initial stabs at making music in New York in the early `80s. A restless Miller quickly moved on, settling eventually in Nashville.
Colvin furthered her songwriting and performance skills in New York (where she also dabbled in theater, including an off-Broadway production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes”) and New England. Her career broke open in the late `80s with her debut album, “Steady On.” Nearly a decade later, she hit big again with “A Few Small Repairs” and a fiery double Grammy-winning hit, “Sunny Came Home.”
After her album “These Four Walls” was released in 2006, Colvin toured with a band that teamed her again with Miller. Like Griffin, Colvin lives in Austin.
“She’s so deep, so sweet and so funny,” Miller said of Colvin. “Well, maybe I shouldn’t say she’s funny. That doesn’t always apply when you listen to her songs.”
The remark rightfully refers to the often-gray cast of Colvin’s music, from “Steady On’s” desolate “Shotgun Down the Avalanche” to the similarly plaintive “Cinnamon Road” from “These Four Walls.” The latter song also features backup vocals by Griffin.
“As a person, though, Shawn is just so much fun to be around,” Miller said. “I mean, that’s the case with all these girls. I’m glad just to be able to go along with them on this tour.”
From her role in the progressive country music that Gram Parsons piloted in the early `70s to recent recording productions by Malcolm Burn and Daniel Lanois that offer more ambient shades of Americana, Emmylou Harris has been a musical pioneer.
Miller met her briefly during her early-‘90s tenure with the all-acoustic Nash Ramblers. On tour at the time with country songwriter Jim Lauderdale, Miller inquired, through her management company, whether Harris might be willing to add recorded vocals to a song by wife Julie called “All My Tears.” Harris agreed. Then, in 1995, Harris cut her own version of “All My Tears” with Lanois, Burn and U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. for “Wrecking Ball,” the Grammy-winning album that changed the world’s view of Harris’ music forever.
Miller next auditioned for, and was accepted into, Harris’ touring band, Spyboy. For the past 11 years, he has remained one of the singer’s most trusted musical allies.
“There are not enough words, really, to express all that Emmylou has done for me and Julie,” Miller said. “Pretty much every musical opportunity that has come our way can be traced to her. She has given me so many opportunities not only to play, but for our music to be heard. She has exposed so many people to what we do and has been a real caring, dear friend.”
What does the magic of Harris’ music boil down for Miller? Simple. Her voice. It’s an instrument still rich in country illumination that has become more haunting and less genre-specific over the past decade.
// Notes from the Road
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