By Kenny Berkowitz
Cruising the Caribbean, Cayamo’s Norwegian Pearl is big enough for 2,000 guests, 50 performers, 16 restaurants, 13 bars, six stages, and a two-lane, ten-pin bowling alley that rolls from starboard to port and back again. In rough seas, it’s hard for even the best bowler to throw a hook, but for Buddy Miller, it’s the perfect place to create an album of country duets.
“They gave me the coolest room, something between a ’20s bowling alley and a bordello,” says Miller, who recorded the new Cayamo Sessions at Sea (New West) on the Cayamo roots-music cruise. “I’m just so used to recording everything, all my life, so I brought an engineer and a tub full of good mics. We set up some gear, some lamps, some wine. Everybody got real close to each other, with the singers right in the middle. It’s all in a pretty tight space, which is how I like to record.”
Miller travels light, packing a 1950s Gibson J-45, a Wandre electric, a Jerry Jones baritone, and a ’60s Vox mando guitar. Apart from 2009, when he was recovering from an onstage heart attack and triple-bypass surgery, Miller has been on every cruise since 2008, when Cayamo first launched. A few years ago, between all his other projects—writing, recording, touring, producing, hosting a radio show with Jim Lauderdale, and working as executive music producer of ABC-TV’s Nashville—Miller came up with the idea of recording a duet between the show’s Stella Sisters and John Prine. That cover of “Paradise” never happened, because Prine’s lung cancer kept him on dry land, but the seed was planted and the concept took root.
While gathered at Cayamo in 2014 and 2015, Miller enlisted a few friends—Brandi Carlile, Shawn Colvin, Kris Kristofferson, Kacey Musgraves, Richard Thompson, Lucinda Williams, and Lee Ann Womack—to join him in singing some classics: Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” Hank Williams’ “Wedding Bells,” Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” and the Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn duet “After the Fire Is Gone.”
“There’s an uncalculated looseness at Cayamo that comes from seeing somebody in the hallway and asking, ‘You want to do something, like maybe later on today?’” says Miller, who’s producing a Shawn Colvin-Steve Earle duet album, and another by Kate York. “We have a small audience, too, because everybody on board is sort of family, and that helps make these songs feel pretty spontaneous. People would wander in, have a glass of wine, sing a couple of times, and record. Everybody’s already heard them, so it’s fun and easy and good.”
But isn’t it a challenge to record in a floating bowling alley? “Nah,” Miller says. “You just have to make sure people aren’t bowling.”
Buddy & Jim
You may know Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale from their SiriusXM show Buddy & Jim, which debuted in 2012 with Lucinda Williams’ episode recorded on the Cayamo cruise.
But Miller and Lauderdale have been friends for 30-plus years, working together on ABC’s Nashville, the Americana Music Association’s annual awards show, and—finally, after 17 years of talking about it—an album and tour.
The veteran songwriters recorded 2012’s Buddy & Jim over three days at Miller’s Nashville home, where they also tape their SiriusXM show, with each on acoustic guitar and Miller also reaching for his Italian Wandre electric. The album’s raw, unexpected mix of brokenhearted ballads, country-blues ramblers, and honky-tonk numbers scored a 2013 Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album.
Tune into the Buddy & Jim Show on SiriusXM Outlaw Channel 60 on Sundays at 10 AM, Mondays at 2 AM and 2 PM, and Wednesdays at 12 AM and 10 PM (all times Eastern).