A roots music renaissance man, Buddy Miller has made a name for himself as a guitarist, singer, songwriter, and producer, and he's worked with an impressive array of artists as well as creating a well-regarded body of work on his own.
As a guitarist, Miller's work is rich, soulful, and evocative, more focused on atmosphere and tone than dazzling the listener with technique, while his songwriting offers an intimate glimpse into many sides of the human experience, and his production work lends a natural sound to the recordings that's honest but casts the artists in their best light. On 1997's Poison Love, Miller fused a classic country sound with the sensibility of a contemporary singer/songwriter, and on 2001's Buddy & Julie Miller (the first of several collaborations with his wife and creative partner), the slightly rough grain of his voice wove itself around her higher, more idiosyncratic sound. 2004's Universal United House of Prayer melded blues, rock, and country accents with the passion of gospel music, and Miller pushed the boundaries of country guitar on 2011's The Majestic Silver Strings, a collaboration with fellow pickers Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, and Marc Ribot. Miller's work as a producer and sideman kept him busy in the 2010s, though he found time to cut albums in tandem with songwriter Jim Lauderdale (2012's Buddy & Jim) and Julie Miller (2019's Breakdown on 20th Ave. South).
Steven Paul Miller was born in Fairborn, Ohio (not far from Dayton) on September 6, 1952. Miller spent most of his childhood in Princeton, New Jersey, where he picked up the nickname "Buddy" from his grandfather. His interest in music was first sparked by hearing Elvis Presley as a kid, and while he enjoyed rock & roll, once he heard a duet featuring Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, he knew that country music was where his talent lay. As a teenager, Miller left home and moved to Woodstock, New York in hopes of joining a band; he got there in time to attend the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969 and see Jimi Hendrix's closing set. By 1975, Miller had moved to Austin, Texas, where he landed a gig backing rockabilly rebel Ray Campi and met a vocalist and songwriter named Julie Griffith, who would later become his wife and creative partner. In the '80s, Buddy and Julie were in a band called Partners in Crime, which also included an up-and-coming musician named Shawn Colvin; the group landed a booking in New York City at the hip country venue The Lone Star Cafe, and Miller liked the mood of the city enough that he relocated to the Big Apple and formed the Buddy Miller Band, who played The Lone Star regularly. (Miller also backed up Kinky Friedman, who had a standing Sunday night booking at the venue.) While in New York, Miller struck up a friendship with a fellow singer and tunesmith, Jim Lauderdale, who also had an interest in the progressive side of country music. After Lauderdale relocated to Los Angeles, he helped Miller land two songs on a 1990 compilation of up-and-coming songwriters titled Points West: New Horizons in Country Music. That same year, Julie, who was performing as a Contemporary Christian artist, released her first album for Myrrh Records, Meet Julie Miller, with Buddy serving as recording engineer and executive producer. While Julie Miller would record two more albums for Myrrh and one for Larry Norman's Street Level Records label, Buddy was having trouble getting his own songs heard, though he was earning a reputation for his studio work and for the home recording setup where he was documenting his material.
In 1995, the blues and roots music label Hightone Records offered Buddy a deal, and that year he released his first solo album, Your Love and Other Lies, a country-flavored set he cut at home. By this time, Miller had been regularly collaborating with Jim Lauderdale on songs, and Buddy played guitar on Lauderdale's albums Pretty Close to the Truth (1994) and Every Second Counts (1995), two of the many albums where the pair would sit in on one another's sessions. In 1996, Buddy's career got a boost when a song he wrote with Julie, "My Love Will Follow You," was recorded by Nashville stars Brooks & Dunn on their album Borderline, and in 1997 he unveiled his second solo album, Poison Love, while Julie's first secular album, Blue Pony, which Buddy produced, also came out that year. Buddy had also been moonlighting as a member of Emmylou Harris' touring band since 1995, and in 1998 he produced the album Spyboy, named for the touring group he and Harris had formed; he also toured as Steve Earle's guitarist in 1997. Miller's third solo effort, Cruel Moon, appeared in 1999, and that same year, he helped Julie record her second secular effort, Broken Things, while a song he wrote with Jim Lauderdale, "Hole in my Head," was covered by the Dixie Chicks on their multi-platinum album Fly. Miller produced Jimmie Dale Gilmore's 2000 album One Endless Night, as well as playing guitar that year on releases by Emmylou Harris (Red Dirt Girl) and Kasey Chambers (The Captain).
2001 saw the release of Buddy and Julie's first collaborative album, titled Buddy & Julie Miller, with Buddy producing the sessions as well as co-writing the tunes. Buddy followed with another solo effort, 2002's Midnight and Lonesome, and he also was part of the Down from the Mountain tour, focusing on material and artists from the wildly successful soundtrack album to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2004 saw Miller release a gospel-influenced effort, Universal United House of Prayer (his first album for New West Records), and he took part in another thematic package tour, the Sweet Harmony Travelling Revue, where he shared the stage with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings. Miller was tapped to produce a country-accented album for the legendary soul singer Solomon Burke, which was released in 2006 as Nashville, and in 2008, when Robert Plant and Alison Krauss toured together in support of their hit album Raising Sand, Miller was recruited to play guitar in their touring band. Another Buddy & Julie Miller album, Written in Chalk, arrived in stores in 2009, and that same year, Buddy joined Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Shawn Colvin for a concert tour billed as "Three Girls and Their Buddy." The February 19, 2009 date of the tour in Baltimore proved unfortunately memorable, as Buddy suffered a heart attack on-stage and underwent triple heart bypass surgery the following day. After the success of the Plant & Krauss tour in 2008, Robert Plant invited Miller to produce his 2010 solo effort, Band of Joy, and he also played guitar on the subsequent concert tour with Plant and Patty Griffin.
Miller's next recording project was 2011's The Majestic Silver Strings, a re-imagining of classic country songs featuring guest guitarists Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Greg Leisz, and a rhythm section comprising bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose. Produced by Miller, the guitar quartet was augmented by vocalists Julie Miller and Emmylou Harris as well as Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Chocolate Genius, and Ann McCrary. Miller teamed with Jim Lauderdale for their first album as a duo, 2012's Buddy & Jim, released by New West Records; the two also toured together in support. In 2013, Miller added a new skill to his résumé when he became an executive music producer for the hit TV series Nashville, helping to coordinate the music featured each week in the show set in the country music capitol. 2013 also saw the release of Electric, an album Miller produced for fellow guitar ace Richard Thompson. In 2016, Miller released Cayamo Sessions at Sea, featuring material recorded with Miller and a host of guest artists (among them Lucinda Williams, Lee Ann Womack, Kacey Musgraves, Richard Thompson, and Kris Kristofferson) during the annual roots music cruise. Health problems sidetracked Julie Miller through much of the 2010s, but in 2019 she was well enough to issue another album recorded with Buddy, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi