Buddy Miller Is Everyone's Buddy

In front of the mic or behind the scenes, Buddy Miller is an Americana guiding light

Jun 3, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Buddy Miller, the “Buddy” in the upcoming “Three Girls and Their Buddy” concert — with Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin — that comes to PNC Pavilion at Riverbend this Saturday night, was having a great start to this year’s tour.

Until the end of the show in their first city, Baltimore. As he was concluding that February performance, while still on stage, the 56-year-old Miller felt chest pains. Not that bad at first, but enough to be concerned.

“We got in a taxi to the hospital, and when I got there it turned into an emergency,” he says from his Nashville home.

The result was emergency triple-bypass surgery and time off to slowly recover.

“It was a big surprise to me, coming right after one of these gigs with the girls,” he says. “But I’m feeling great now. It’s been three months since then and I’m getting back into it.”

Guitarist/singer-songwriter Miller, who was born to an Air Force family stationed at Dayton’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base but grew up primarily in New Jersey, has a lot to get back into. For several years he has been one of the hardest-working men in Americana music.

Just this month, he received five nominations from the Americana Music Association’s annual awards — Best Album for the new Written in Chalk with his wife, Julie; Song of the Year for their performance of Julie’s “Chalk”; Duo or Group of the Year, again with Julie; and, on his own, Artist and Instrumentalist of the Year.

Written in Chalk is the second album to be credited to Buddy and Julie Miller (pictured), who have been married and working together for some 20 years. She has released six solo albums and he five. A prolific songwriter, she provided eight of the new album’s 12 songs; they collaborated on a ninth.

He, meanwhile, also has been in the studio recording new music with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, with whom he has toured in support of their Raising Sand album. And he has been producing a new album for Patty Griffin.

In the course of three years of touring, the “Three Girls and Their Buddy” show has become so popular that it even has spawned a cruise. The show has won a devoted following for its relaxed spontaneity — there is no set list in the intimate, in-the-round format. This leads to sparkling storytelling as well as fine singing by all four. And Miller provides key guitar accompaniment.

“We all had the same management and we’re friends,” Miller explains. “So it all just happened organically. It’s just so much fun.

“I love them all; they’re three of my favorite voices and people,” he continues. “Hearing them sing together, and getting to play along and sing, is just incredible. The challenge for me is to not mess up anyone’s song and to keep out of the way of how beautiful it is. So I try not to play too much.”

Although he resides in Nashville and his voice has a slightly twangy, plaintive quality, Miller is not a Country singer per se. Americana is not just Country music without the big-hat/Arena Rock pretensions.

“When I was growing up, there wasn’t FM radio — or at least I didn’t know about it,” he says. “On AM radio, you’d get Johnny Cash and then Gene Pitney and then Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and the Beatles — it was all mixed-up and it was great.

“You didn’t think necessarily that one song was R&B, one was Country,” Miller says. “It was just the radio playing music. And this Americana thing is like that. There are so many things that can fit under that umbrella — Country, Soul, Folk or Rock. And it’s all based around the song, not around a dancer or something like that.”

Miller has worked with Harris off and on since replacing Daniel Lanois in the band supporting her 1995 Wrecking Ball album. He got to know her when he and friend Jim Lauderdale opened for Harris on a European tour. And Colvin once sang in Miller’s New York-based Country Rock band in the 1980s. At the time, he had moved from Texas.

“That’s when I thought Country was going to be big up there,” he says. “I was playing with Kinky Friedman and had a little band that played at the Lone Star Café and Shawn was in it.”

Harris also helped Julie’s career immensely when she recorded her “All My Tears (Be Washed Away)” for Wrecking Ball, an album that has proven prescient for its choice of songs by the best emerging Americana singer/songwriters. (The Millers’ version appeared on Buddy’s 1995 debut Your Love and Other Lies.)

Miller would love it for Julie to come out on tour with him. But she struggles with fibromyalgia, which causes muscular pain and fatigue. He is hopeful, however, she will be able to do some gigs just with him later to support Written in Chalk. And maybe she could even be part of “Four Girls and Their Buddy” in the future.

“They’d love it if she was out there,” he says.

THE “THREE GIRLS AND THEIR BUDDY” TOUR stops at PNC Pavilion Saturday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.