11:56 AM CST, February 14, 2013
Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale are a couple of Nashville mavericks who’ve written, sang, played on or produced some of the best records of the last 25 years. They’re best friends who live just a few blocks from each other in Nashville, and yet they’ve never made an album together – until now.
“Buddy and Jim” (New West) could be said to be 30 years in the making, dating back to when they first met. It brilliantly distills their casual mastery of myriad genres – honky-tonk, bluegrass, soul, Cajun, rock ‘n’ roll. It also highlights their simpatico as musicians; their harmony vocals suggest they could be brothers from another lifetime.
That style-blending was already taking place when the two started sitting in on each other’s shows in New York City circa 1980.
“I moved up there (from Austin, Texas) before ‘Urban Cowboy,’ and there already was a country scene,” Miller says, referring to the 1980 John Travolta-Debra Winger movie with a hit soundtrack heavy on mainstream country music. “When the movie came out, it bumped up things on people’s radar, because that soundtrack was so popular. We both appreciated what that did for the audience, but we were both a little rootsier than what was on the soundtrack. So we didn’t exactly jump on the bandwagon.”
Miller and Lauderdale, who arrived in New York from Nashville, found a community of like-minded musicians and singers, including Shaw Colvin, future Bob Dylan associates Larry Campbell and Tony Garnier, and Steve Forbert.
“With that community of people, that club of people, we could go out and hear music every night of the week and be influenced by one another,” Lauderdale says. “It was a big deal for me to see someone like Steve Forbert out at a show, meet him and see that he was having success because I aspired to do what he was doing. Touring bands like Rockpile came through several times, and I got to develop a relationship with them. And then sitting in with Buddy, I thought he had the best band in town at that time. I can’t repay him enough for that experience.”
Lauderdale went on from there to record 19 albums, including cult classics such as “Pretty Close to the Truth” (1994) and “Could We Get Any Closer?” (2009). He’s now an A-list Nashville songwriter whose tradition-steeped tunes have been recorded by heavy hitters ranging from George Strait and the Dixie Chicks to Solomon Burke and Blake Shelton. He has collaborated with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter, and rocked with Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams.
Miller, besides recording a dozen albums of his own (some with his singer-songwriter wife, Julie Miller), has developed a reputation as a top-shelf lead guitarist with Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, among others, and producer, with albums by Robert Plant, Richard Thompson, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Solomon Burke. Many of the albums were recorded at Miller’s home studio in Nashville. That same studio became home base for the “Buddy and Jim” sessions, which were knocked out in three days with a dream group of Nashville friends as a backing band: Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin, Dennis Crouch on bass, Russ Pahl on steel guitar, Marco Giovino on drums and Patterson Barrett on keys.
“The toughest part was aligning our schedules,” Lauderdale says. “But the interest was always there. Nashville has this amazing pool of artists, pickers, writers, an influx migrating here from all over the country. The scene is broader than ever, and when Buddy and I started doing our radio show (on SiriusXM) from his house last year and featuring some of these people, we also started talking about making a record together. Things happened real quick from there.”
Miller suggested they record an album of songs originally recorded by the ‘50s country duo Johnnie & Jack, but the vision soon expanded to include some original songs and a broader range of covers that emphasized the duo’s harmonies.
“One thing Jim and I have in common is a love of old R&B and country, and we don’t see the distinction between the two,” Miller says. “When I first started playing guitar with Jim in Los Angeles, Jim would open the show at the Palomino, a country joint, with a James Brown or 5 Royales song, and it worked. I don’t have my record collection separated into R&B and country, it’s all just good music. So when we did the Joe Tex song (‘I Want to Do Everything for You’), it was a soul song with a country element, and the harmonies fit our concept, this mixture of Johnnie and Jack, the Louvin Brothers, and Sam and Dave.”
The vocal interplay was enhanced by the hominess of Miller’s studio.
“It’s a great atmosphere to work in, very relaxed, like being in somebody’s house -- because it is,” Lauderdale says. “Buddy added an addition to the house in back, and it’s a very sunny, inviting space with big windows. And we don’t bother the neighbors.”
Miller laughs. “The neighbors are big music fans, especially since I give them vinyl copies of every record that gets done at my place.”
Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale: 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Av., $25; lincolnhallchicago.com.