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Six Strings and Shy 

On the eve of the Sweet Harmony tour, Buddy Miller lets his guitar do the talking.

Miller time: Buddy (pictured with his wife, Julie) has - played with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Trisha - Yearwood.
  • Miller time: Buddy (pictured with his wife, Julie) has played with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Trisha Yearwood.
Buddy Miller doesn't want to talk to us. It's not personal, and he's too polite to admit it, but Miller doesn't like chatting on the phone. He's uncomfortable speaking about himself. But here we are.

Ten years ago, few outside of a small community of musicians had heard of the guitarist-producer-singer-songwriter. Now that he has four solo albums to his credit and a fifth one on the way (a collaboration with his wife, Julie, on an Americana Music Association Album of the Year), the outside world has finally taken notice. Especially since Miller's had his songs covered by the multiplatinum Dixie Chicks and Brooks & Dunn, and has spent eight years on the road with Emmylou Harris as well as more abbreviated stints with Jim Lauderdale and Steve Earle.

None of this makes it any easier for Buddy Miller to do interviews, though.

He's about to embark on a month-long tour with Harris, Gillian Welch, and Patty Griffin under the banner of the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue, and press is necessary. Eight days before the trek begins, Miller's in Tennessee, on the phone, and less than enthusiastic about it.

"You're stuck with me," he says. "I hope I can be of some help to you on this thing. I'm not very good at the interview."

It's not as if Miller hasn't spoken with reporters before. He's talked at length about all manner of musical equipment -- pedals, guitars, microphones, soundboards. After all, he runs the humbly named Dogtown recording studio out of his Nashville home. There he's produced all five of his own records and the last two records by his wife, as well as Jimmie Dale Gilmore's last solo effort.

Buddy Miller is also the most visible player of Wandre guitars in North America.

"Really, the Wandres are just a big mess," he says of the oddly styled six-strings, which would look perfectly at home on Lost in Space. "They're like your favorite old shirt that has too many holes in it but you've had for 15 years. It just doesn't even look good in anybody's eye anymore, but you can't stop wearing it. And that's the way it is with me. I'm just so comfortable with them.

"I've got a lot of good guitars by now, you know," he continues. "I didn't used to. When I first started playing with Emmylou, I pretty much just had the Wandres and one or two other things, but now I've got a lot of, really, what you'd think of as good guitars, but all my hand feels comfortable on are those Wandres."

With Wandre in hand, Miller has provided backing vocals on records by Patty Griffin, Allison Moorer, Trisha Yearwood, and Kasey Chambers, and you'd need some kind of road map to list all the guitar parts he's played. But session work, at least outside his home studio, provides the man scant pleasure.

"With every note I play, I feel like I'm ruining somebody's career," he says. "And it makes me sweat too much. I'd just as soon, you know, do the things I do. I don't think that's one of them."

Miller is equally self-effacing when it comes to his own songwriting and, truth be told, it appears that his spouse pens as much Buddy Miller material as Buddy does himself. Co-writes are the norm, and if single credit is given, it's often Mrs. Miller whose name is written in italics below the song title.

Still, a lot of Buddy Miller songs are showing up on a lot of non-Buddy Miller records. The couple has composed the rockingest song ever written about land mines ("100 Million Little Bombs"), and despite a predilection toward metaphors as heavy as those aforementioned explosives ("I guess I should've looked both ways/When I pulled out on the highway of your love/'Cause you were moving way too fast/And now I'm just one more hit and run"), Miller's sincere-as-folk delivery pulls off tune after tune with earnest precision. All of this will be on display at Sweet Harmony; just don't ask Miller what form it's going to take yet.

"I'm not really sure what's going to happen," Miller says of the upcoming shows. "We haven't rehearsed yet, and actually we haven't even talked about it all together yet. And I don't know when we're going to. We're supposed to rehearse like a day or two before we go out, so really I could safely say we don't know what we're doing."

While this might be a problem -- more than a problem -- for most tours attempting to gather four headliners a mere week before the first performance, Miller's already pretty familiar with all the artists on the tour. He's played or sung or recorded or written for just about everybody who's driven through Nashville in the past 10 years. And live performance is what leads his heart. Despite his own recording success, he has no intention of ever giving up the gig with Emmylou.

"Are you kidding me? Every night that I have that voice in my monitor," he says before trailing off. "Yeah, I'll play with her as long as she wants me there."

At some point, even bullies get tired. It's time for us to leave the man alone.

"It's been great talking to you," Buddy Miller says when we thank him for his time. The line is poised, at the ready, and, as with an overanxious actor, delivered with more fervor than anything he's said in the past 20 minutes. This is relief, pure and simple -- a man who sounds as if he's just been pardoned minutes from execution.

So, Buddy. Any last words?

"It's going to be great," he says of Sweet Harmony with requisite modesty. "I mean, I'd pay a lot of money just to go and listen to those three girls every night."


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