BUDDY MILLER with justin rutledge at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Wednesday (February 23), 9 pm. $13.50. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
Any talk about awards inspires uncomfortable laughter from Buddy Miller in the week leading up to the 47th annual Grammy Awards. The first-call Nashville session guitarist has been in the business long enough to know that historically the event has had little to do with recognizing genuine musical accomplishment.
So even though Miller's stirringly soulful latest disc, Universal United House Of Prayer (New West), includes some of his career-best songwriting and most moving vocal performances, he knows that a nine-minute version of Bob Dylan's With God On Our Side squarely aimed at President Bush isn't really Grammy-grabbing material. Yet he sounds sincere when he says, "I'm thrilled just to be nominated."
The fact that Miller was competing against the Crabb Family and Randy Travis this year in the category of Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel - rather than country or folk - seemed to give him a fighting chance of walking away with the hardware, but when I spoke to Miller two days before the ceremony, he had a different take on it.
"Well, the last time I was up for a Grammy," chuckles Miller from his Nashville home, "it was in the folk category, and it seemed kinda cool to say I got beat by Bob Dylan. Somehow losing to the Crabb Family doesn't have quite the same ring to it."
As it happened, Randy Travis won for his Worship & Faith (Word) album, but there's little solace for Miller in having his ass kicked by the Nashville country star most likely to host a home renovation show. Still, it's not awards but Miller's guitar playing that pays the bills.
He's revered in Music City for his deep, room-filling tremolo twang, but it's his tasteful sense of understatement that keeps him busy cutting sessions. And that's also what makes him the sideman of choice for Emmylou Harris, no slouch as a picker herself.
"My wife, Julie, and I first met while playing in a band in Austin doing covers of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris songs. So when I went to audition for a job in Emmylou's touring band, every one of those songs she called I could just play without having to ask, 'How does that one go again?' I think that helped me get the gig."
Miller also recalls how some musicians at the auditions were making fun of the weird-looking guitar he was playing, and admitting that it cost him $50 just made everyone laugh louder.
But that aluminum-necked Wandre guitar that he picked up with three others at a Colorado pawnshop back in 1976 has become an essential part of Miller's signature sound. Its unique look and tone definitely add to his guitar-slinger mystique.
And thanks largely to Miller's patronage on high-profile tours with Emmylou, the price of those Italian-made "cheapo" guitars has skyrocketed in recent years, rising above $8,000 for some of the stranger variations in shape and finish.
"Well, it's not the prettiest guitar ever made and it's always falling apart, but somehow it just feels right in my hands. It's really all I can play."
Naturally, Miller doesn't want to contemplate how his sound might change if he ever lost his Wandre guitar, but the thought did cross his mind once.
"For a short time we had a place in New Jersey because it seemed like a safer alternative to living in New York," remembers Miller. "Then we got robbed - two nights in a row - and on the second night they came back for my guitar.
"So I drew a picture of it and photocopied a bunch of posters that said 'Stolen guitar... reward' and put 'em up on telephone polls all around the neighbourhood. I thought that was the end of it, but a couple of days later I got a call from a guy saying he'd found a guitar underneath his truck.
"I went to see him, and there was my guitar, still in its case with the little How To Play Guitar book. My guess is that when the thief opened up the case and saw it wasn't a Fender or a Gibson, he just dumped it. Sometimes it's good to be a little different."