By Jim Schutze
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If you judge a man by the company he keeps, it's no wonder that a good number of discerning tastemakers see Buddy Miller as the bright hope of real country music. A thumbnail sketch of his career depicts a journeyman guitarist who has worked with an honor roll of roots-music icons: Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, and Kinky Friedman. Currently, he's the musical foil for Emmylou Harris, taking up the slot previously occupied by such talents as Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs, as well as, on some songs, filling the vocal boots once worn by Gram Parsons, the granddaddy of alternative country. Miller's New York City-based country-rock cover band in the early 1980s included the then-unknown Shawn Colvin. He produced the latest (and maybe best) Jimmie Dale Gilmore album, One Endless Night. And Miller has even written a song with George Jones, which has to approach the paramount of country cool. Yet he is far more than just the sum of his associations.
And the best company he keeps is actually that of Julie Miller, his wife and primary songwriting partner. Since the mid-1990s, the Millers have emerged from decades in the shadows with two separate yet parallel solo careers on HighTone Records, the tastemaking San Francisco Bay-area blues and country label. Buddy's three albums reside in the sweet spot where gutbucket country, bluegrass, and soul comfortably intertwine, articulating what today's country music could and probably should be as well as anyone since Parsons. Julie, who previously recorded albums for the Christian music market, creates subtly spiritual songs of considerable secular power, profound humanity, and exquisite taste. Yet like the ancient Hebrew admonition against uttering the name of Yahweh, or maybe the way Jesus spoke in parables, the thoroughly God-centered Julie sings in a breathy, girlish voice about faith, hope, love, and compassion without ever explicitly invoking the notion of religion.
Their albums, produced by Buddy, ring with the twang of classic C&W simplicity, yet also echo the bang and chime of 1960s rock, nestle in the velvet-lined grooves of R&B, and brim with the humane sincerity of true folk. And the sumptuous yet lucid sonics Miller captures on his Macintosh in the couple's Nashville living-room studio, a mile or so from Music Row, cross the burnished-wood warmth of the tracking room at Bradley's Barn with the computerized bridge controls of the Starship Enterprise.
Following in a grand C&W tradition, they've become the virtual king and queen of today's rebel country movement, though they would probably both decline such honors with an almost embarrassed modesty. But the Millers have indeed sprouted from the musical lineage of such once-noble duos as, in the old Nashville, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton (an early influence on a young Buddy), and Jones and his onetime wife and duet partner Tammy Wynette (who, when Julie was a child, was one of her mother's favorite singers). They certainly bear the heritage of such later country-rock royalty as Parsons and Harris, whose music the Millers covered for years before befriending and working with Harris herself. Not bad for two musicians who have knocked around the music scenes in Austin, New York, and Los Angeles from the mid-1970s until the '90s, trying to eke out a living.
"I didn't have time to make a record," Buddy says, in his characteristically self-effacing fashion. "I was too busy doing whatever I needed to do to pay the rent, and selling whatever guitar I needed to sell at the end of the month to pay the bills."
They need not worry now. With a Dixie Chicks cover of Buddy and Jim Lauderdale's "Hole In My Head," a Brooks & Dunn hit with Buddy and Julie's "My Love Will Follow You," and more Music Row song placements in the chute, Buddy will no doubt now be able to buy as many guitars as he might ever desire. But then again, his trademark electric six-string is a 1960s Italian-made model he likens to "a Dodge Dart," and bought "for a joke" in a Boulder, Colorado guitar shop in the 1970s for 50 bucks. As a player of guitar, steel, mandocello, and just about anything else with steel strings, Miller has perfected nuclear-powered minimalism to a high art.
"I used to try and play as fast as I can," he says. "Now I try to play as slow as I can. Maybe it's just because I'm older." Or maybe, through their musical wanderings, the Millers have ultimately divined the simplest elements of musical and lyrical richness and invested them with an awesome power all their own. Even the august New York Times weighed in a few weeks ago with an article praising the Millers as the exemplars of "off-brand country."
For Julie Miller, the connection to country music's godfathers and godmothers reads like a natural result of her raising. Born in Waxahachie, she had landed in Austin by her teens, where the roper-and-doper progressive country format of the legendary KOKE-FM schooled her in the C&W gospel. "I heard 'Return of the Grievous Angel' on there," she remembers, "and I called up [popular KOKE DJ] Joe Gracey, and I said, 'Who's that girl singing on there? And he said, 'I think it might have been Linda Ronstadt. Hold on. Let me look and see.' He looked at the cover and said, 'It's some girl named Emmylou Harris.' And I still hear him saying almost word for word, 'Let's hope we hear some more from her.'" Julie giggles heartily at the memory. After all, she just got back from singing on Harris' next record. "Yeah. Like she needed me," Miller scoffs. "But that's how she is. She's nigh on close to the most perfect person I've ever seen. She just blows my mind."
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