If the Everly Brothers liked each other, their shows would be a lot like the one co-hosted by Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale at the Birchmere on Tuesday, as the two career-long second fiddles spent a night sharing the spotlight.
It’s the first road trip together for the duo, who told the crowd that they met 33 years ago in a bar and initially bonded over a shared love of George Jones. Since then, Miller, 60, has become sort of an American version of Richard Thompson, a musician’s musician with a distinctive alt-country and blues voice and a signature guitar sound that’s heavy on tremolo and low-note bends. Yet for all his gifts, his career has largely been spent in background roles, playing in bands led by Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, while also producing records by, among others, Plant and Thompson. Lauderdale, 55, has paid the bills through the years mainly by writing songs that other, far more popular country artists such as George Strait and Patty Loveless have turned into hits.
But Miller and Lauderdale proved themselves to be a pair of fine frontmen and duet partners. The Birchmere gig was the first night of the Buddy & Jim Tour, and in their 90-minute set they traded tunes from each other’s back catalogues, introduced material from their recent and jointly recorded album (also called “Buddy & Jim”), threw in a couple classic country covers and generally came across as brothers from other mothers.
With Lauderdale offstage, Miller delivered “Wide River to Cross,” a spare ballad about a middle-aged man’s search for purpose. Miller said he was singing this tune in Baltimore four years ago to the night when he realized he was having a heart attack. “I finished the show because I’m a professional,” he said with a laugh, “and I wanted to get paid.” (Despite the giggles, he’s still among the living only because of emergency triple bypass surgery and a long stay at Johns Hopkins.)
Lauderdale, who allegedly chugged most of the dressing room’s wine inventory during his break, returned to identify “King of Broken Hearts” as something he wrote in tribute to Gram Parsons and George Jones. He was dressed like Parsons, in a garish Nudie-esque purple sequined suit, and phrased like Jones while trading verses with Miller on “The Race Is On.” “Looking for a Heartache Like You,” a song co-written by Miller and Lauderdale, had a Texas swing flair courtesy of Fats Kaplin’s pedal steel guitar.
The newness of the band (called, of course, the Buddy & Jim Band) came through during uncertain musical moments; it wasn’t clear everybody onstage knew when solos were coming or going during Miller’s “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go,” for example. But the occasional sloppiness only enhanced the good vibrations coming from the stage. Late in the evening, Lauderdale apologized for any missteps and humbly told the crowd he’d understand if anybody asked for his or her money back. Miller quickly added that his new sidekick wasn’t implying there would actually be any refunds. “But we’d understand,” he said. After a performance this fun, nobody was going to ask, anyway.
McKenna is a freelance writer.