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The Last Word: Buddy Miller

Interview by Anne Levin

Growing up in a quieter Princeton than we know today, Buddy Miller fell in love with music at Princeton High. The 61-year-old son of Princeton Council president Bernie Miller is today a well-known country singer, guitarist, songwriter, recording artist and producer, and is currently the executive music producer for the hit ABC-TV show Nashville, which is where he lives.

Miller’s real name is Steve, but he changed it to Buddy because there was already a well-known Steve Miller in the music business. Though he moved away from Princeton “as soon as I could get a driver’s license,” he has fond memories of the town and credits the opportunities he had here with planting the seed for what has become a very successful career. In addition to his solo albums and his own Buddy Miller Band, Miller has performed with or written songs for Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, and his wife Julie Miller  – to name just a few.

He talked to Princeton Magazine in January, just a few days before traveling to New York to appear with Bill Frisell as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

The light bulb went on for me during an assembly program in high school. They brought in a group called The Strange Creek Singers. They’re sort of legendary in the bluegrass mountain world, and they sang some coal mining songs. It was just revelatory for me. It was one of the things that got me on track. Music was all I cared about. I had a great music teacher at Princeton High, Mr. Savage. A guy in my class was Bob Carlin, who went on to become a professional banjo player and wrote books. I didn’t exactly study music, but I was engulfed by it.

What was it like growing up in Princeton with such a passion for music?

The seventies was a great time for music. And being right between Philly and New York, you had the best of both worlds with radio. Radio back then was free form – a little bit of everything. I saw shows at Alexander Hall and McCarter, right in town…Simon & Garfunkel, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Miles Davis. I remember at Alexander Hall, a very disappointed crowd who went to see Laura Nyro and expected Eric Andersen as the opening act. But instead, they had to hear somebody who hadn’t had a record out named James Taylor. His first record came out about three weeks later, I think.

There was also the radio station WPRB. I was the nerdy kid who they’d let hang out at the station, sit around and learn, and borrow records. I never gave them back. And I remember going to The Main Point outside Philadelphia to see bluegrass and folk shows. I went to Lambertville Music Circus and saw B.B. King with an organ trio, Mitch Ryder – all that stuff had such an impact. For a kid who loved music, it wasn’t difficult to get around to find a way to go to a show. It was a great time and great place to be.

How did you get involved with the show Nashville?

The show’s writer, Callie Khouri, is married to T Bone Burnett. I was the guitar player on the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant tour he was on, and Callie came out for a lot of that tour. I got to be friends with them. When she did a pilot for ABC, she called me and asked me if I’d like to [produce] the music. So I did the pilot. When it got picked up, T Bone was executive music producer for Season One, and I co-produced with him. He couldn’t continue for Season Two so she asked me to take over.

What’s it like to work with the cast, most of whom were not professional singers?

We don’t have to work on the vocals that much. They’re actually really good. And they’re lovely people. They all get along. An interesting thing about the show is that they’re all starting to write songs, getting involved in the process. The lines are really blurring. They’re playing as themselves, singing songs they’ve written. Chip Esten (who plays guitarist Deacon Claybourne) actually sang before. All of these guys love music. When Callie was looking at their tests, she looked beyond what they were singing for something a little deeper. We ended up with some really good folks.

What about Scarlett and Gunnar (played by Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio)? They seem like they’ve been singing together forever.

I produced that track of the first song they did, “If I Didn’t Know Better.” It was the first time they had been in the studio. I was really nervous about that song because of the range it required for Sam. That song has a note that I can’t even think, let alone sing. But he nailed it. I was concerned enough where I wanted to meet with them the day before they recorded. I went to their hotel, and they had only just met. They had really done their homework, individually. So they stood two feet from each other and sang, and everybody had goosebumps.

Has Nashville changed since the show became popular?

Well, I don’t get out much. But every time I drive past The Bluebird (a famous café featured on the show), there’s always a line. I think people are coming here just to check it out. But the thing is, Nashville had already changed, before the show. It used to be just about country and gospel music here, and it was culturally a bit one dimensional – food-wise, too. But now, it’s great, in all respects. And it’s open to all sorts of music. So many musicians live here. Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys lives right behind me.

Do you get back to Princeton? And what do you think about your Dad, still president of the Council at 84 and planning another run?

My folks are still there so I try to get there at least once a year. And my Dad is something else – still out there, causing trouble.

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