By Jim Schutze
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By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
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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."
Buddy Miller, an Air Force brat, was born outside of Dayton, Ohio, and eventually landed in Princeton, New Jersey, where a burgeoning Northeastern bluegrass scene allowed him to indulge his taste for Ralph Stanley, playing rhythm guitar and upright bass as a teen with musicians far older than he. His migratory life continued in the early 1970s, passing through upstate New York, Berkeley, and the Massachusetts Berkshire Mountains in a hippie country band traveling in an old school bus. Miller followed the left-wing country trail to Austin in 1975, where he met Julie when he "auditioned for this band, and Julie was the chick singer. The group did a lot of Gram Parsons and John Prine songs. It's funny," Buddy muses, "because it's a lot of the same songs I'm playing today [with Harris]. Julie told them not to hire me, because she was 16 or so, and she wanted to appear discriminating. But they hired me anyway, and we became pals."
They later became an item and moved to New York City in the wake of the Urban Cowboy scare, where The Buddy Miller Band was a regular weekend attraction at Manhattan's thriving Greenwich Village Texas outpost, The Lone Star Cafe. During that time, Buddy also played with Friedman (who, it should be noted, still needs to name check his friend Miller in one of his detective books). When Julie left New York in a bout of spiritual fervor, Buddy recruited Colvin, whom he knew from Austin, to take Julie's place. Yet the couple's bond was strong enough to induce Buddy to follow Julie to a California Christian commune, both giving up music in an effort to find their spiritual comfort zone. When they ultimately turned back from that dead end for another stab at music in Los Angeles, the Millers landed among a community of artistically like-minded folks like Williams, Lauderdale, guitarist and producer Gurf Morlix, and the late Donald Lindley, longtime drummer for Williams.
It was Julie who first began recording her own albums, making a number of records for the Christian market. She's also the main songwriter of the two, a gift that followed her final conversion, which came thanks to "an Emmylou song, a Bob Dylan record, [and] a book about this Jewish guy behind the Iron Curtain who became a believer. It was basically those three things, plus a Bible," she explains. "Suddenly, I just started writing songs. It came about because I had all these feelings just coming out. I didn't care if it was a good song or a bad song, because it wasn't for that reason. It was for my own expression, just sitting by myself. It was like God had set me free from being 'good enough' and anything like that. I suddenly felt like, if it's good enough for him, who cares?"
Her writing is certainly good enough for her husband, who confesses that he had only snippets of songs before HighTone offered him the chance to make a record in the early 1990s. "The deal came along, and they asked me if I had any songs, and I just said, sure, and then we sat down and finished them," he recalls. "Julie is actually much more of a writer than me. I bring in a small piece of a song, and then I beg her to finish it. And then, when she doesn't have any time left, I just beg Lauderdale." HighTone also signed Julie after hearing her previous releases, affording the singer a forum outside the contemporary Christian music industry, which Buddy says can be "sometimes even worse than the rock-and-roll business. The gospel people didn't really get her. She was a little outside for them."
The Millers might also seem far outside the current commercial lockstep in Nashville. But as their albums started catching the ears of loyalists to the true country cross, Buddy also picked up gigs playing with Earle and Harris, whose recent live album Spyboy he produced. "The first thing we did at the very first rehearsal was, she came in and said, 'I think I want to do "Love Hurts." I haven't done that song in a while.' That was the first thing we sang together after I got the gig. From that point on, I'd be happy to be paying her to play. It's a dream gig." And by now, all of the couple's activities seem to be blessed. Buddy gets to moan over heartbreak and howl about love on his latest CD, Cruel Moon. Julie's second HighTone release, Broken Things, is equal parts spiritual uplift and comforting balm for those troubled or damaged by the sometimes cruel existence of this temporal realm.
Even though both consider themselves committed Christians, they exist apart from organized religion, which has often driven people away from God as much as drawn them closer. "Isn't that the truth!" exclaims Julie, who grew up a Texas Baptist. "In my family, even though we went to church, we never talked about it. It was crazy-making, really, to hear the things that were taught at church, or reading from the Bible, or singing these very serious songs, and no one paid the slightest bit of attention to it. It was so bizarre." Instead, she professes a sort of agnostic one-on-one relationship with the almighty. And both of the Millers shy away from anything even vaguely resembling evangelism.
Given how their lives and art have blossomed as they've reached their 40s, the best spiritual case the Millers might make is in the same fashion Alcoholics Anonymous tries to offer light to those lost in the dark wilds of problem drinking: attraction, not promotion. "It's not quote-unquote religion for me," says Julie. "It's just like this deep friendship and relationship and love. I think that somewhere within all our hearts, we long to be just so completely loved and adored and attended to, but no human can do that. And we spend our lives trying so hard to get that from a person. But God is just completely thinking a thousand thoughts about us every second, and longing for our company. That's just what changed me, and saved me, because I would have been dead, I really would have."
For Buddy, the ascendancy of his career as an artist, songwriter, sideman, and producer came from a gospel of sorts as well: the music he's loved and played for decades.
"I don't want to sound like an old fart, but the music we grew up listening to is better than the music these kids now are growing up listening to," he notes without a trace of derision for the latest things. "When you grow up listening to the Beatles, and then Porter and Dolly, who came along not long after that, and Haggard doing great stuff, it's a great education." On 1960s AM radio, "Skeeter Davis singing 'The End of the World' would come on right after The Beatles. I remember hearing that stuff on the school bus every day, all mixed in. You don't get that anymore: a foundation in great music, which there was when I was growing up. If you did cover songs, it was mostly just great songs, just because you loved 'em. You get used to playing good songs, and then it's easier when you finally start writing, and something good might come out. Maybe."
He hesitates at being so narcissistic to think of himself as creating greatness. "I don't know. It's a mystery." Yes, not unlike the experience of faith to those untouched by it.
"We are so unbelievably blessed," says Julie with a touch of awe in her voice. After all, for so long the Millers never seemed to think of themselves as much more than bar-band musicians. Yet now they are icons of the movement that hopes to take back country at the same time the country-chart acts are recording their songs. And all without the Millers doing the slightest bit of plugging, unlike the almost desperate 24-7 effort by most folks trying to crack into the tight Nashville songwriting game.
"It's been really amazing," Buddy concludes. "A big surprise. We didn't expect it, and we haven't been trying." But perhaps not trying is the way, like the Hindu tenet about non-attachment, or the notion of not pushing the river, or perhaps the old expression about letting go, and letting God. "Maybe. Whatever it is, I'm glad about it."
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