It’s no secret Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale run with the same crowd, a crowd comprised of some of the leading ambassadors of American roots music. They launched a satellite radio show together earlier this year, they’ve co-commanded the stage of the Americana Music Awards for a good while — Lauderdale as droll host and Miller as laconic band leader — and their fingerprints are all over each other’s discographies.
Actually, their intertwined history stretches back to their days working well beneath the radar in New York bar bands. What they’d never done until this month’s Buddy and Jim was thoroughly blend their distinct sounds and personalities on a duo album. The resulting 11-song set, and the quips they exchanged in an interview about it, indicate just how comfortable these two picking and singing songwriters are working side by side.
CMT Edge: This might seem like an obvious question, but considering that you’ve known each other for three decades, why did it take you this long to do an album together?
Buddy Miller: That’s a great question. We ran out of ideas for other things to do. The well was dry. We couldn’t come up with anything else, although Jim does have four other records in the can and is working on three other projects. It’s just timing, I think.
Jim Lauderdale: Yeah, timing. This friend of mine was saying he saw some footage of me on some show in Germany in 1995. [The show host] said, “Well what are you up to now?” And I said, “I’m getting ready to do an album with Buddy Miller.”
M: So in a way, this record didn’t take three days to make. It took 15 years.
L: Seventeen years.
M: If you count just talking about it.
These days you collaborate all the time. But I don’t think people know much about how you met in the New York country scene of the early ’80s.
M: That was a long time ago. In 1980, or ’79, a movie called Urban Cowboy came out, and a lot of musicians, country musicians from Texas especially, moved up to New York City where there was a scene, and there was a show called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. They were recruiting musicians. And there were clubs like the Lone Star Café, City Limits. …
I was living in Austin, and I came up with what’s now my wife, Julie [Miller nee Griffin], and we played the Lone Star Café and went, “Man!” And it seemed so ridiculous to move from Austin, in the ’70s, to New York City, but there was something happening there that was really cool. … And we were young. We thought, “Nobody’s making records in Austin. They make records in New York.” We didn’t think far enough to realize they don’t make country records in New York. But we came, and that’s where Jim and I met.
Jim, you were already living there, weren’t you?
L: I got there in the fall of ’79. … You mentioned that show The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which later became a movie with Dolly Parton . I guess that had been up there a couple of years, and it was pretty successful. They had a whole band of really top-notch musicians from Texas. And then they would have understudies for the band. They would actually have two different sets of understudies to fill in. … They were on salary, so they’d be free to play in the clubs. … I went to a screening of [Urban Cowboy] up there. So that must’ve been in ’80 or ’81. Then that added to the boom.
M: Oh, so that came afterwards?
L: That came afterwards. I was working as a messenger in the mailroom at Rolling Stone magazine, and I got to go to this screening.
Did you first meet at a show where one of you was playing?
L: Buddy won’t remember this because I was just one more schlub that came up to him after a show. But there was a club called Cody’s I had had a few gigs at, and people were saying, “You’ve gotta hear Buddy and Julie Miller. They’re great.” So I went down and heard ‘em. I went up afterwards and introduced myself. I’m sure Buddy was probably thinking, “Yeah, right.”
M: But then we became good friends. I remember hanging out at some clubs late at night. The scene there, too, was great, because after the gigs, at 2 in the morning, it’s New York City. It’s open all night. Chinatown was open 24 hours a day. … We’d often leave and it would be daylight. It was a great hang time. Delbert McClinton would play at the Lone Star a lot and own it. As weird as it might seem [for New York to have a country scene], it was a really cool time.
There are very few people doing the male duet thing now. Why do you think it’s fallen out of fashion? And what is it about that vocal configuration that really does something for you?
M: I think the sound is great. The sound of two male voices is a tough sound. It’s not sweet. It’s tough. But I think maybe some of the songs guys don’t wanna sing, because it’s a lot of love songs. Two guys singing a love song is a little weird, you know? Maybe that’s one reason. But we don’t care.
L: Yeah, we don’t care what people think. … Let ‘em talk. It might sell more records.
M: That’s exactly right, Jim.
So what you’re saying is that if you’re secure in your masculinity it shouldn’t be a problem.
L: Absolutely. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
I also think we’ve been in a period where people take the lyrics a singer is singing as literal autobiography.
M: You’re exactly right.
L: Historically you had all these brother acts — the Delmores, Louvins , the Blue Sky Boys, Everly Brothers , Wilburn Brothers . And then that just kinda [died out]. I don’t know when it was. I guess the Everlys were the last. When I was here in ’79, the Wilburn Brothers were still performing on the Opry, but they weren’t having current hits. So that’s probably been since the ’60s.
M: You know, maybe it’s a bad sound, and we just don’t know it. … Or maybe just unpopular. That would make sense as to why we did it, because we don’t do popular music. We do unpopular music.
There are certain things on the album that I identify with one or the other of you, the country-soul ballads with Buddy and the clever lyrics of a song like “Vampire Girl” with Jim. Did you nudge each other to do things that wouldn’t ordinarily be your first inclinations?
L: I’m not sure if it was nudging. It might’ve been intimidation or a threat. … I’m kidding. Like for instance the song that we wrote together with Julie, “That’s Not Even Why I Love You.” I didn’t want that to be duo voices the whole way through. … I wanted Buddy to sing it.
M: And on “Vampire Girl,” I don’t believe in the vampire lifestyle. I don’t endorse that. And I thought Jim should sing that.
L: I’m kind of a vampire, so he let me do that one.
M: There wasn’t enough time to really plan it out too much. We cut 15 songs — we overcut, really — in three days. We just moved fast and went with what felt right.
L: Another thing that was happening was that we did have these preproduction meetings, and I was trying to come up with different things for several weeks. But for me, things usually don’t come together writing-wise until the very last minute. And that’s what happened with this.
M: I’m used to working that way, too. Julie is always coming up with lyrics the last day we’re working on the record.
Was “The Wobble” your choice for an album closer, Buddy?
That’s a little unexpected.
M: Why? Were you disappointed?
A half century-old song is something I’d expect to hear from you, but not necessarily a little old dance number.
M: Well, you know what? This record, I think we both wanted it to be fun, not labored over, not too heavy, not too slow. Just kind of a fun record. I’d never made a fun record.
Do you think it’ll be another 15 or 30 years before you do the next album?
L: I hope not. I hope maybe next year. … We can do Buddy & Jim Sing Buddy & Jim.
M: If it only took three days to make, we could make one every few months.