Missed For A Decade, Roots Icons Buddy And Julie Miller Return To A Shared Spotlight

Jun 21, 2019
Originally published on June 21, 2019 9:54 am

The entertainment industry has given us countless tales of romantic pairings that were products of proximity or convenience — on film sets, club stages and world tours, in TV and recording studios — but didn't survive the transplant to other, more mundane settings. Buddy and Julie Miller have lived a different narrative: persevering, continually adapting companionship, in public and private.

Approaching four decades of marriage, they've been making music together even longer, their collaboration taking just about every imaginable form along the way. Julie backed Buddy in his country bar band. In the early 1990s, she became the first of the two to have a solo recording career, with him deeply involved as her guitarist, co-producer and sometimes co-writer. From the mid-'90s to the early 2000s, they worked together on albums released under each of their names and as a duo, he increasingly recognized for the contributions of his musicianship and she for her songwriting.

Either together or separately, Buddy and Julie have won every single Americana Music Award category for which they're eligible at least once. They rose as parallel talents at the same time that the Americana scene was growing more centralized and visible, and earned honored places in it because they embodied so many qualities that it valued. Between them, they channeled their creative drives through roots-minded country, gospel, blues, folk and singer-songwriter impulses, prioritizing expression in the forms of both authorship and interpretation. They merged moral conscience, spiritual yearning, courtly pining and frisky sensuality without any sense of contradiction. And their close collaboration didn't cause the strengths and quirks of their individuality to disappear, but blossom.

At the end of its initial print run as the definitive alt-country magazine in 2008, No Depression heralded Buddy as the artist of the decade. But by then, Julie had already stepped back from performing; contending with her worsening fibromyalgia symptoms required a lot of her energy.

So there was a lot more than just nostalgia behind the excitement that awaited Breakdown on 20th Ave. South, the first official Buddy & Julie Miller album in a decade. Those two make up one of the most beloved, idealized and unassumingly influential couples ever to be claimed by the Nashville music-making community, and the tale of their musical reunion is a singular one.

They seem to relish describing their initial, mid-1970s encounter, because of the incompatibility it forecast. Buddy was a New Jersey expat with experience in band life by the time he arrived in Austin and auditioned for the group Julie (née Griffin) was in with a rendition of Tom T. Hall's plaintive, conversational country-blues number "That's How I Got to Memphis."

Buddy, seated with his back to his sprawling mixing console in the Millers' Victorian home, relates Julie's initial response to his singing with a crooked half-grin: "She said, 'No, don't hire him.'"

Her objection, she chimes in delightedly, was that he was "too country." "I had visions of punk rock," she goes on, "but I was in Austin and there wasn't really anybody to join in on that."

Differences in taste and temperament, balanced against shared affinities for electric blues and mountain folk styles, didn't stop Julie and Buddy from forging a connection. She agreed to move with him to New York City, where the Buddy Miller Band worked the bar circuit with fellow roots enthusiasts Shawn Colvin, Larry Campbell and Jim Lauderdale. Then, a spiritual awakening sent Julie back to Texas; she'd long ago fled what struck her as harmful perfectionism and hollow decorum in her evangelical church upbringing, but still craved a loving relationship with God. Buddy soon followed her south, and they married.

From then on, she says, "We were glued together."

"Yeah, all those moves," he concurs. "I mean, we went broke in every major music town and city, and didn't care."

They landed in Nashville, a music town where they could afford to buy a house, in 1993, and set up their first home studio. There they tackled Julie's third solo album for the contemporary Christian market, Orphans and Angels, whose folk-rock leanings were more pronounced than its predecessors, alternating between a Byrds-ian jangle and Appalachian keening. She flatly refused the offer of a publishing deal — the very thing that plenty of songwriters come to Nashville chasing — being constitutionally opposed to the very idea of delivering sellable songs on a set schedule.

"I thought if I had to [do that], I would blank out," she explains. "I would get, you know, writer's block."

Buddy views her stance philosophically: "She didn't want to connect money to art. She didn't want the pressure. ... I try not put a load on her about anything that's business-like or connected to the business."

To this day, Julie still resists using the basic technologies that enable commerce: cell phones and computers. "I think it makes people's minds stop working another way that does sort of compete with their creativity, with their freedom in their mind," she says. "Buddy's gracious enough to let me stay free."

We went broke in every major music town and city, and didn't care. - Buddy Miller

The Millers continued figuring out how to make records together. From the mid-'90s on, they released solo albums under each of their names through HighTone Records, a now-defunct indie that specialized in roots music. Buddy's were stocked with country-soul and honky-tonk numbers, which he sang like a man unflinching in his will to outlast the pain of loss and loneliness, while Julie gingerly tended wounds (hers and others') over fingerpicking and testified to spiritual darkness with been-there certainty. They had different ways of being emotionally present; Buddy, by far the more robust of the two voices, spent himself on meaningful exertion and penetrating soulfulness, while Julie, sometimes dismissively described as "girlish," channeled fierce yearnings through the most feathery of timbres, in ways that could come off as disarmingly sincere or sly.

"As we'd work with each other," Buddy reflects, "she'd step over into my camp and come up with incredible songs, and her singing is so free and loose. When I'd work with her, I'd try my best to get out of my stock three licks that I know how to play. ... She would push me to go beyond."

He also served as lead guitarist and harmony singer in Emmylou Harris' backing band, beginning around the time that Harris reinvented herself with the gauzy, meditative Wrecking Ball. Stepping into a role that required him to recreate the atmospheric parts guitarist-producer Daniel Lanois played on that album, along with mastering the country-rock, folk and bluegrass portions of Harris' repertoire, also led Buddy to expand his grasp of mood and tone — and to ultimately set a high-water mark with his guitar playing that he's much too self-effacing to admit that others now emulate.

Harris says that professional partnership with Buddy wound up cementing a friendship with both musicians. "Julie actually sat with us on some of those shows, and later on there were times Buddy and Julie and I would go out as a trio, because if you have Buddy Miller, you almost don't need a band," she says. "There's just something about the way they are together as a couple, the way they are separately, the way they live their lives, their priorities, the music that they bring, that just I'm so grateful that they came into my life."

Harris was one of the first to reinterpret one of Julie's songs. The Millers both profess amazement at the fact that numerous mainstream country acts, including Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack, Dierks Bentley, Leann Rimes and Miranda Lambert, have also plucked material from their albums and rerecorded them with major label budgets. After all, they've never participated in the Nashville ritual of song pitching. Womack went so far as to insist that Julie and Buddy join her for a televised CMA Awards show performance, and described them as her true north, a model for what she wanted to do herself once her days of worrying about country radio airplay were in the past.

The Millers' image as a true-blue team was solidified when they billed themselves as a duo on their self-titled 2001 album. They weren't the type of singing partners who played out two-sided melodramas; it was their style to harmonize side by side with ardent empathy, and occasionally playfulness. Their blend could be intensely close, but it left room for their distinct vocal attacks and personas. They sang "The River's Gonna Run," for instance, a Celtic folk-rock vision of spiritual stirring disturbing the natural world, almost as a round — Buddy's resolute phrasing conveyed conviction while Julie, unfettered in her imagining, whirled around his lines in whimsical arcs.

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Some time after that, the slow ebb of Julie's participation began. She wrote or co-wrote more than half of Buddy's 2002 solo outing Midnight and Lonesome ("To write songs knowing that there's gonna be a singer like Buddy Miller to sing it, I mean, that is the most inspiring thing," she emphasizes), but seemed less present on his 2004 follow-up, Universal United House of Prayer, a righteously red-blooded and downhome gospel-rock set that was his first release on New West (HighTone had been shuttered). The last time I saw the Millers share the stage, at that album's release show, Julie played the impish foil to Buddy's stoicism, pilfering silverware from tables at the front of the club to use as improvised percussion instruments.

Julie had been living with fibromyalgia symptoms for decades — heightened sensitivity to the environment, persistent fatigue, pain all over — though like so many women who share her condition, her complaints hadn't always been taken seriously by doctors. Eventually, she reached the point where it was too much for her to get out and perform. And because her empathy has such an active, at times consuming, quality, the tragic death of her brother around that same time, followed by a friend's suicide, plunged her into profound grief. "I was so shattered in a million pieces I wasn't functional," she shares.

Such a radically altered dynamic would have taken a toll on any creative, professional and/or domestic partnership. What could be seen from an outside perspective was that Buddy got busier than ever. He toured with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, then with Plant's Band of Joy, whom Buddy also produced. Elders like Solomon Burke and Richard Thompson, peers like Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle and those who'd come up in an era when Buddy and Julie were already fixtures in the Americana firmament, like Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Wood Brothers and The War and Treaty, placed their albums in his hands.

The work Buddy had done up to that point proved that he could be relied on to capture their music with earthy immediacy, and, where called for, to supply guttural, incisive licks, loose, lumbering grooves and an encyclopedic knowledge of classic country, R&B, soul and gospel tunes. And the impact of the Millers' dynamic — its spotlight-sharing, mutually supportive camaraderie and companionably dueling differences — was at least distantly echoed in the personalities of other married duos who came on the scene, including not only The War and Treaty but Shovels & Rope. (Perhaps they even helped lay the foundation for fans' emotional investment in Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell now.) Buddy also took over for T Bone Burnett on the music production side of the primetime drama Nashville, which kept a punishing schedule, the equivalent of churning out an album a week.

The second official Buddy & Julie Miller full-length, Written in Chalk, appeared in 2009. It had moving moments — like the anguished, heart-unburdening title track that Julie wrote for her husband to sing — but wasn't necessarily the duo's most collaborative project. Buddy clarifies, "We didn't really work together on that too much. That was me finishing up some demos that were started and maybe a few other songs."

During the decade or more that Buddy devoted to outside assignments and occasional side projects, he often operated out of the studio that dominates the main floor of the Millers' Hillsboro Village home. He's hard on himself for his part in allowing distance to grow in the household: "When we stopped [playing together] — because I was a little bossy on stage probably, too, while we were playing together — instead of me trying to mend the fence, I just split and got into work, and then got burnt out on work too and realized I made a big mistake. I mean, I love all the music I got to work on. They're incredible people and artists and great music, but this one I belong with."

Julie has her own way of talking about that period. "It took a long time for me to get back to healthy — even with God helping me, it took me a long time," she says. "I finally was able to communicate to Buddy, you know, this whole thing, and here he is. He quit it and came and worked with me!"

It wasn't like they got right down to business. They spent months hanging out on the couch, sampling TV shows and documentaries — as Buddy puts it, "just enjoying each other, not pressured to do music."

Julie claims to have been floored when Buddy told her that New West would be interested in releasing another duo album, that people hadn't stopped caring. "I thought it was over with," she marvels.

She made it her mission to focus on coming up with songs every day that she felt up to it, keeping a miniature guitar by the bed, in case an idea came to her in her sleep, and scribbling down snippets on receipts, scraps of paper and her favorite writing surface of all: cardboard pizza boxes. "In the 10 years of not writing," she reflects, "I had gathered many things within myself. ... I had so much in me. It just poured out."

Julie saw the quality of her output improve as she went. One day, she stopped Buddy cold with "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," a teasingly obsessive vow that was the first addition to the batch of songs that became Breakdown on 20th Ave. South. "He was walking out the door, and I started singing it, just off the top of my head," she says. "And he turned around and he came back in and he recorded it, the part that I had."

In the finished version, Buddy's reedy harmonies shadow her cool, bluesy boasts: "I'm gonna make you love me, and I'm gonna make it stick / I'm gonna make you love me when you've had it and I make you sick / I'm gonna make you love me and I'm gonna be sweet and kind / I'm gonna make you love me when I confuse you and you lose your mind."

"I don't guess anyone will take it seriously — I mean, I hope not," she ventures. "That song is kind of like a joke, but it's got some truth in it."

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The same could be said of "Everything Is Your Fault." It's a subdued folk-rock number that captures the hurt of a partner that doesn't feel listened to, but it also has subtly arch undertones that suggest humor in the heat-of-the-moment hyperbole has been illuminated in hindsight. "Everything is your fault in the whole wide world," she sings, the simple, descending melody sounding almost chipper until its minor turn. "You're the one who had to have you a crazy girl."

"I mean, I don't come off looking that great in that," says Buddy, "but I insisted on that song being on the record." He also sang it alone on a music cruise, eager to prime the duo's patient fans to hear new songs from Julie.

She has sole writing credit on all but one of the album's dozen songs. Her nephew dreamed up the title "Storm of Kisses" at age 4 (he's now out of college), and it struck her as fitting for a ballad that reimagines her brother's untimely end as part of the greater story of a life lived with cowboy-style abandon.

Julie's openheartedness has never been limited to the songs she frames as personal. She's hyper-attuned to the unjustness of suffering, especially when it applies to orphaned or brutalized children — child soldiers are the subject of the martial march"War Child" — and has, more than once, prophesied an apocalyptic future in which the world's hierarchies and abuses of power are upended. "Feast of the Dead" is the latest example of the latter, and features the wheezy, droning tones of the hurdy-gurdy, a hand-cranked, wooden instrument that Julie had coveted for some 30 years (ever since she heard Irish punks the Pogues rehearse with one backstage) and Buddy custom ordered for use on the album.

"We don't know how to play it," she laughs.

"You don't have to — it plays itself," he bantered back. "It's like the worst-sounding fiddle."

She feigns indignation: "It's not either."

Though Buddy has a trusted circle of musicians he can call into the studio for any project, he decided to keep outside involvement to a minimum this time, not only winging it on hurdy-gurdy, but layering many of the bass lines and drum patterns beneath his guitars. He even toted microphones up to their living quarters to set up a private recording nook.

When the topic of Buddy bringing the studio to her comes up, Julie pokes fun at how it unfolded: "'No, she won't come downstairs!' I was like Rapunzel, without any hair."

Buddy, though, acknowledges the symbolism of the act. "I think there were just so many records made down here that she wasn't involved in," he says, glancing around the studio. "No bad vibes, but just other things attached to this room that weren't us."

Give-and-take, though — that's Buddy and Julie through and through.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Musicians Buddy and Julie Miller have been a celebrated husband and wife fixture in Nashville over the last quarter century. But it seemed like their days of making music as a duo were over when a chronic condition caused Julie to stop performing. Now they're back with their first album in a decade. It's called "Breakdown On 20th Ave. South." Jewly Hight reports.

JULIE MILLER: She's here.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: (Laughter).

BUDDY MILLER: Come on in.

HIGHT: Guests at the home of Buddy and Julie Miller pass through a living room that doubles as part of a studio and a former kitchen now lined with instruments.

J MILLER: Welcome to the house of no reason.

(LAUGHTER)

B MILLER: We live upstairs. And this is all - the downstairs is all for music.

HIGHT: The two members of the Miller household couldn't be more different. Buddy's as stoic as Julie is effusive.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUDDY MILLER SONG, "HOW I GOT TO MEMPHIS")

HIGHT: The contrast was clear when they met in the mid-1970s. Julie was singing in an Austin band, and Buddy auditioned with this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW I GOT TO MEMPHIS")

B MILLER: (Singing) If you love somebody enough, you'll follow them wherever they go. That's how I got to Memphis.

I sang that for my audition for the band. And she said, don't - no, don't hire him (laughter).

J MILLER: He's too country (laughter).

HIGHT: Julie was more into rock, blues and folk, but that didn't keep the two singers apart. When Buddy moved to New York City, Julie went too. And when she returned to Texas, he followed, and they married. They bounced between other cities and music scenes before settling in Nashville in 1993, where publishers took an interest in Julie's songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL MY TEARS")

J MILLER: (Singing) When I go, don't cry for me, in my father's arms I'll be.

They wanted to sign me to a deal for a lot of money. I was like, are they kidding? No way am I signing (laughter).

B MILLER: She didn't want to connect money to art.

J MILLER: I thought, no, ow, my brain (laughter).

B MILLER: And she didn't want the pressure. And you didn't want the pressure of having to, like, give them 10 songs, even though you could write 10 songs easy.

HIGHT: Julie had tried recording for the Christian market, which didn't really suit her bohemian disposition. Then she and Buddy started making solo albums that found an Americana audience. They'd worked on all those projects together and finally concluded they were meant to be a duo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RIVER'S GONNA RUN")

BUDDY MILLER AND JULIE MILLER: (Singing) I'm going to rock on the water.

J MILLER: (Singing) And dance on the flood.

B MILLER: (Singing) I'm going to lay down with the wind.

J MILLER: (Singing) Lay down and believe like a child.

B MILLER: (Singing) I feel the swell of the tempest.

J MILLER: (Singing) I can feel the passion of a soul.

B MILLER: (Singing) Like there's a storm coming in.

J MILLER: (Singing) I can feel a storm going wild.

Buddy and I - we have separate tastes, but we also have where it combines. And where it combines is where it really happens.

HIGHT: Outside of their collaboration, Buddy put in time playing guitar and singing with Emmylou Harris, who got to know both the Millers well.

EMMYLOU HARRIS: There's just something about the way they are together as a couple, the way they are separately, the way they live their lives, their priorities, the music that they bring that I'm so grateful that they came into my life.

HIGHT: But by the mid-2000s, Julie had withdrawn from performing. She lives with the chronic pain disorder fibromyalgia, and her symptoms had intensified. On top of that, she was grieving her brother's sudden death. The duo was in limbo, so Buddy filled his time producing albums for other artists and touring with Robert Plant.

B MILLER: Instead of me trying to mend the fence, I just split and got into work and then got burned out on work and realized I made a big mistake. I mean, I love all the music I got to work on. They're incredible people, but this is the one I belong with.

HIGHT: Buddy's actions showed Julie that he was listening. One day, she even managed to stop him in his tracks with a spontaneously dreamed-up song.

J MILLER: He was walking out the door (laughter). And I started singing it just off the top of my head. And he turned around and came back in, and he recorded it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GONNA MAKE YOU LOVE ME")

B MILLER AND J MILLER: (Singing) I'm going to make you love me. And I'm going to make it stick. I'm going to make you love me when you've had it and I make you sick.

HIGHT: Many of the songs on Buddy and Julie's first album together in 10 years were captured in the moment without anyone else involved. He lugged recording gear up to her in their living quarters.

J MILLER: Yeah. No, she won't come downstairs. I was like Rapunzel without any hair (laughter).

B MILLER: I think there were just so many records made down here that she wasn't involved in - no bad vibes but just kind of like other things attached to this room that weren't us.

HIGHT: The lyrics came from Julie. She wrote about the outside world's troubles, as she's done throughout her career, but also shared revealing the intimate moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IS YOUR FAULT")

J MILLER: (Singing) If I'm happy, you trap me in your invisible cage. When I cry, you want to try to make me turn the page.

B MILLER: That's the song "Everything Is Your Fault In The Whole Wide World."

J MILLER: (Laughter).

B MILLER: Yeah. I mean, I don't come off looking that great in that, but I insisted on that song being on the record.

J MILLER: (Laughter) That was supposed to be funny.

B MILLER: No, it wasn't.

HIGHT: In a partnership as lasting as Buddy and Julie Miller's, the truth can be wrenching and playful at the same time. They make an art out of give and take.

For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IS YOUR FAULT")

B MILLER AND J MILLER: (Singing) Everything... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.