Buddy Miller Artist In Residence: August 24, 2010

August 24, 2010
Buddy Miller closed out his three-part artist-in-residence series by inviting friends reaching back to early in his career—a choice that underscored just how far Miller and longtime collaborators Shawn Colvin and Jim Lauderdale have come in their careers.

His other guest, Country Music Hall of Fame member Emmylou Harris, played what Miller cited as the most crucial role in introducing Miller’s special gifts to fans and fellow musicians. “All the good things that have come to me have come through Emmy,” Miller said.

“I’m having so many flashbacks—music flashbacks,” Lauderdale said after joining Miller and his rhythm section, bassist Byron House and drummer Bryan Owings, on “Hold On My Love,” a song Lauderdale wrote and Miller recorded on his first album, 1995’s Your Love and Other Lies. The two friends also performed several songs they had written together, including “Hole in My Head,” “Love in the Ruins,” and “Don’t Wait.”

By inviting two of his longest-running musical partners, Miller called attention to how profoundly the importance of musical collaboration has been to his career.  He and Lauderdale first met in New York City, where Miller had moved from Texas with his wife, Julie Miller. Colvin and Miller go back even further, to the 1970s in Austin. Colvin followed her friends to New York, where they played together in a band.

“I’m thinking back thirty years ago to the good times we had back at this club City Limits where I saw Buddy and Shawn play together a lot, and they were always so good to me,” Lauderdale said. “They’d always let me sit in, and it always meant so much to me and helped me out so much.”

Colvin recalled first seeing Miller perform on drums in country bands, including one led by traditional vocalist Darrell McCall. “Back then, we thought of Buddy as a quadruple threat,” Colvin said. “Now he’s like an octagonal threat.”

Miller and Colvin concentrated on covers of classic songs, including “That’s the Way Love Goes,” a song written by Lefty Frizzell and Whitey Shafer that Merle Haggard also cut; “Poison Love,” a Johnnie & Jack tune Miller recorded on his second album, Cruel Moon; “Let It Be Me,” which the Everly Brothers popularized; and “Keep Your Distance,” a Richard Thompson song that Buddy and Julie Miller sang as a duet on their 2001 self-titled duet album. Colvin also performed a ringing version of “Diamond in the Rough,” a favored cut from her 1990 debut album, Steady On.

As the stories from his friends emphasized, Miller never pursued solo stardom as a means to an end. He has focused on collaborations throughout his career, from his early days with Colvin and Lauderdale to his mid-1990s stint as the guitarist in Emmylou Harris’s band Spyboy to his recent tours with Robert Plant’s Band of Joy (whose upcoming album Miller co-produced) to last year’s tour in Three Girls and Their Buddy, with Colvin, Harris, and Patty Griffin.

That same spirit of sharing ran through Miller’s Museum residency series, as he sought to trade ideas and inspirations with musicians he loves and respects. That theme mirrors what the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum sees as a principal feature of its annual artist-in-residence series.

In his opening remarks, Museum Director Kyle Young said, “For this honor, we single out an artist with prodigious talent who has already contributed a large and significant body of work to the canon of American popular music. This stage is given as a blank canvas, and the honoree is encouraged to create a series of one-of-a-kind musical experiences.”

Like many artists-in-residence before him, Miller has chosen to color this open canvas with the spontaneous artistry sparked by performing with longtime colleagues and heroes, creating the kind of unique concerts that continue to make the Museum series such a special Nashville occasion.

“I’ve had the best time the last couple of weeks,” Miller said early in the program. “It’s all gone by so fast, I’m just trying to take it all in.”

Miller’s guest list also underscored the different routes artists from similar beginnings can take. From common beginnings, Colvin, Lauderdale, and Miller all pursued different American music journeys. Colvin became an international pop star, taking a singer-songwriter’s personal, expository style and pumping it up with lean, rocking arrangements and dramatic acoustic settings that were as captivating as they were commercial.

Lauderdale gained favor as a writer of mainstream country hits, while his own recordings delved deeply into specific areas of country roots music, from honky-tonk to bluegrass to the cosmic Americana explored by Gram Parsons and, at times, the Grateful Dead (whose chief lyricist, Robert Hunter, has become a favored co-writer for Lauderdale.)

Miller, always renowned for his guitar work, embraced his roles as producer, sideman, songwriter, musical partner with his wife Julie, and a striking solo artist who combined traditional country, gospel, and rhythm & blues into something distinct, deep-grooved, and soul searching.

As Young said in his introduction, “Buddy gives breath, flesh, and elan to the Museum’s mantra: The past has meaning in the present. He is an ideal artist-in-residence.”

Lauderdale summed up the feelings of those who attended any of the three sold-out 2010 artist-in-residence concerts celebrating the host’s high-standing in the American music pantheon. “There’s nothing like a Buddy Miller concert.”

—Michael McCall