HomemadeBuddy Miller’s music has strong roots, in more ways than one. He has made three solo albums for the oakland, Calif.-based HighTone Records label, each firmly based in traditional country and each crafted by the artist in the living room of the home he shares with his wife and collaborator, Julie Miller. A real-deal type of performer, Miller blends genuine, guitar-based songs with a soulful country voice that’s often sweetened by his wife’s harmonies. He’s the type of talented and self-reliant musician whom you might expect to toil in obscurity, remaining one of Nashville’s “best-kept secrets.” But, happily, Music City is listening to Buddy Miller.
In recent years, Buddy and Julie Miller’s songs have been covered by some of mainstream country’s most successful performers, including the Dixie Chicks, Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack and Suzy Bogguss. Also, Miller has been the guitarist of choice of Steve Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Emmylou Harris. Miller has toured extensively with Harris, succeeding producer Daniel Lanois on the Wrecking Ball tour. While on the road, he and Harris co-produced her Spyboy album. And when he’s at home, he also records and produces other artists. Mix phoned Miller at home recently to talk about his studio setup and his most recent solo release, Cruel Moon.
Tell me how you got started recording at home.
I was mostly just playing guitar with different folks-with Jim Lauderdale, if you know Jim-and playing in bands, playing guitar. I’d done some messing around with recording, but not really too seriously until my wife got a deal and the label built a Studer A80 into the deal so she could do it at home, and then we started collecting old recording gear.
Can you describe your home recording setup, the way the equipment and the rooms are arranged?
Well, it’s an old house, about 100 years old or close to it, that at some point in time got divided into a duplex. For a while we lived in half and worked in half, but now we’ve added on and moved upstairs and just use the whole downstairs for recording. It’s basically four rooms, three of which open up into each other. Then there’s one in the other half of the house, which can just be used for drums-just pretty much empty and hardwood floors and glass, and it just sounds great for drums.
It just feels very much like a house. It makes everybody comfortable, which is part of the trick, why it’s nice to be in a house. There’s just no pressure.
And the gear?
I’ve got a bunch of old Telefunken V76s that I use as mic pre’s and a bunch of API and Neve pre’s. And I’ve got some Ampex-the old 350s and 300s-tape recorders, and we use their mic pre electronics. Anything with a real big meter, I like to look at.
I had a Studer A80, a 2-inch machine, but it would hum like a bad guitar, and I didn’t want to get the whole house rewired. You’d have to turn it until it would stop humming. You could watch all the needles move up on it as it rotated. It was in the middle of the living room, and it was kind of cute for a while. My wife would decorate it at Christmas time with holly, and one time the holly rattled off when it was in Rewind, and the stickers went in there, and the buttons would pop off the remote. So, I switched to Pro Tools.
So you record directly to Pro Tools?
I track to Pro Tools, yeah. It’s the Pro Tools|24. And all the players have their own Mackie little mixer to make their headphone mixes that are run off one of the Pro Tools 888|24 interfaces.
That’s a big change from the Studer.
It is a big change, but I still use all the same stuff as a front end. I’ve got a lot of old mics I like; on my last record, I was using a Sony C-37A, a Lawson L47 and an old Neumann bottle mic-I think it’s a CMV563. And I use an old tube [Neumann] KM254 on acoustic guitars. And I have the mic pre’s. I use Pro Tools, but you know, I don’t use it like most folks use it in this town.
What do you mean by that?
I mean, I think they use it as a soul sucker. I think if Autotune was time-bombed, Nashville would panic. I think that people don’t sing every note perfectly in tune, and people don’t play perfectly in time, but I think people listening to the radio now are conditioned to hearing everything perfectly in tune and drum parts perfectly lined up with a click track, and I think it takes some of the heart out of the music. I mean, I love the plug-ins, and I do use them, but I use it more like a tape recorder.
When you’re recording, do you try to have bands play live?
oh, yeah, as much as possible. If it’s a band, I sure wouldn’t ask them to play as less than a band.
Your records certainly have a live feel to them. The strength of the music and the passion of the performances definitely lend themselves to live playing, but it must be difficult to engineer and produce and play live in a band.
Yeah, and a lot of the time my songs aren’t written when I’m recording them. [Laughs] So, I’ll engineer, and I’ll start it recording, and then I’ll run in the other room and pick up the guitar and play, or I’ll just have a remote at my little station and my own little Mackie headphone mix.
When I go to mix the songs, by the way, I have an ATR-102, an old Ampex 11/42-inch machine that I mix onto, either at 15 or 30 [ips], depending on the song.
What monitors do you use when you’re engineering?
I have Tannoy NFM-8s and the Mackie monitors.
Do other bands record in your house?
Yeah. I have a band coming in tomorrow, actually. I’ve got to clean up. I’ve got to move the Christmas tree back a foot, ’cause they’ve got more folks in ’em. They’re called the Vigilantes of Love, from Athens, Georgia. And I just finished producing Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
I heard about that. Did you do that at home?
I don’t like to leave the house. I engineered it and played on it and sang on it and produced it and mixed it and mastered it.
Tell me about how recording at home benefits your work as opposed to working with a commercial studio.
I couldn’t do anything in a commercial studio. I couldn’t afford to walk in the door.
So the benefits are partly financial?
Yeah. It allows me to start my records before I have everything in place, which is a really good thing. I like recording songs that aren’t finished. It’s the same reason as getting the take before everybody learns it: That magic, when it’s just a little uncertain and you’re going for something when you’re playing but you’re not sure if you’re supposed to be. That moment when you’re playing, it before it’s really learned is when it sounds the best.
I did an interview with Nick Lowe not long ago, and he said the same thing. He likes to be the only one who has rehearsed and knows his songs when he gets musicians together to record.
Well, that’s the same with me. But I take it maybe a step further where I don’t know it. [Laughs] I don’t rehearse them at all. Matter of fact, some of the songs I pick out just before I have to go record, within minutes, and piece it together while we’re recording. But that’s partially because I’m so busy and I might have just a few weeks to do a record in between tours. I went on that Emmylou Harris/Linda Ronstadt tour this summer, and I had to finish my record right before that tour started, and I think it works well. I like working that way.
Tell me when you started working with Emmylou Harris and how that happened.
It was with Wrecking Ball. I love that record, and I think Daniel Lanois did the initial tour with the rhythm section that he picked. Then they needed a replacement because he needed to go elsewhere. Meanwhile, I would just call Emmylou’s manager every few months to see if there was a possibility of getting an audition. I wanted to let them know that I was interested.
So she was somebody you really wanted to work with?
Yeah, exactly. I was out opening for Emmylou, playing guitar for Jim Lauderdale, and I’ve always been a huge admirer. So, when they had auditions, I got to participate, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t think I had a chance of getting the gig. It was a big surprise to me when I did.
When I co-produced her live record, that Spyboy record, I wanted to record the dates just to have proof that I was actually in the band. I’d bring out a few racks of gear, just because I loved the music so much, and I never thought that it would turn into anything.
What did you use to record?
That was just ADATs and a rack of mic pre’s I had with me at the time. I’m guessing I had a bunch of APIs. Dean Norman [the front-of-house mixer] and Doug Dawson [monitor mixer] would set up the recording gear and position the mics before each show. We got into a little routine and took it out for 20 or 30 dates with that little setup.
Since you started making your own records for HighTone, a lot of artists have covered the songs you and your wife wrote. Is that something you have tried to do as part of your career, write songs for other people?
Not at all. We still really don’t. We just make our little records in the house, and people happen to hear them and record the songs. We don’t think about other people recording them when we’re making albums. That would kind of ruin the process.
Listening to your new album, Cruel Moon, there seems to be a progression from your previous albums, from more hardcore country to music that’s moodier and more textured. Has there been a conscious progression to your work, or is it a surprise to hear that?
No, it’s not a surprise, and it’s not a conscious effort. It’s just that I did that record in three weeks in between a couple of tours, and having just worked with Emmylou and working with my wife and playing guitar for Steve Earle for a while, coming off of those different musical situations, it’s whatever was rattling around in my head during the three weeks I got to work on my record. I don’t think there was a conscious effort to take the music any certain place; it just depended on the song. The songs lead you to a certain sound.