Buddy Miller lives and records in an old bungalow on a shady street in Nashville, TN. In rooms lined with guitars and stacked floor to ceiling with recording gear, he makes some of the best music currently coming out of Nashville. Buddy and his wife, Julie Miller, write and record their own material, inviting friends like Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, and Jim Lauderdale to join in. Buddy's busy schedule includes touring with Emmylou, (most recently for the Down From The Mountain tour) and touring to promote his and Julie's albums, including the Grammy-nominated release from Hightone Records, Buddy and Julie Miller. When not on the road or recording his own music, Buddy has found time to produce albums for Ms. Harris, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Vigilantes of Love, and Greg Trooper, among others. Some of the many artists whose records boast his performances include Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, and Patty Griffin — his and Julie's songs also have been recorded by mainstream country artists like the Dixie Chicks, Lee Anne Womack, and Brooks & Dunn, breathing vitality into a format-driven genre. Deeply anchored in hard country/roots music, the honesty, grit and integrity of Buddy's music stands out in his writing, performance, and recording. In the midst of recording his new solo album, Midnight and Lonesome, Buddy took some time out to talk about his approach to making records.
How did you get started recording music at home?
I got my first tape recorder when I was about 10 years old. My grandfather had a discount store, and he gave me a tiny reel to reel with 3" reels. I took it home and figured out a way to clip the mic onto my guitar and started recording. It didn't have a capstan, so it would run at its own speed... I later got a Sony two track that you could overdub on. I was always into recording live stuff. Somewhere in this house there's a box of reels from all these concerts I went to at the Fillmore, audience recordings. Later on I got a Magnacorder that's a great field recorder. It's a 1/4" half track in two pieces, with a stereo preamp, like the Ampex preamps over there, [points to a stack of Ampex 350 mic pres in the corner] that separates from the recorder. Every band I was in, I'd always be the guy that wanted to do the demo.
At what point did it feel like you could make your own records?
Well, it still doesn't seem like I can make my own records [laughs], but I somehow pull it off. It never feels like I'm in a studio really. It never feels like I'm doing it right.
Was it always trial and error, or did anyone ever show you how to do stuff?
Always trial and error, and listening to other people's records and saying, "Why can't I make it sound like that!"
Well, that's what I say when I listen to your records!
It seems like with everything I do, it's new to me. Because I tour with Emmylou [Harris], and all the other things I do — writing, my own gigs, touring with Julie, producing other people — by the time it comes to making a record, I haven't done it in so long and I end up saying, "How do I do this again?" I know how the gear works, but it always feels sort of new. Which is kind of cool.
Can you describe the setup in your house?
Well the house was built in 1904. It has been divided and undivided a bunch of times. When we got it I think it was a triplex. We live upstairs and record downstairs. The studio is basically three rooms. The living room, which is really a pretend living room which we don't really live in, is where we set up drums. It's small, but I like to record with as few people as possible anyway, which is different for Nashville, where they often like to get the whole track at once.
Does it always begin with an ensemble, or do you ever build a track with overdubs?
It usually begins with a small ensemble. Bass, drums, guitar, and sometimes one other element. The voice and the song are the focus and I don't like anything to get in the way, clutter, or overpower the song.... just frame it. The fewer instruments I track with, the better I can hear what else is needed. I try not to do too much overdubbing, but I plan for having to do some. I know when the basic track goes down, there's something about playing together that you can't get with an overdub. Even with my playing, there will be mistakes and slop, and sometimes the sound isn't perfect, but it really gels together so much better. On the other hand, a lot of times, Julie and I are making records in between other things going on. I have been touring with Emmylou for six years, and it takes some planning ahead to make a record. I took the summer off from a tour so I could get some things done. However, I wasn't planning on doing this record until a few weeks ago. I realized that if I wanted a record out this year, now was the time to do it. We didn't have the songs written, but we had pieces of songs. I could record the music and finish the songs later, when I heard what the tracks were saying. And Julie is great...