Occasionally an album comes along that completely screws up an editor's greatest comfort--the orderly scheduling of attention and consideration for the next several issues. You've got all the big artists covered, all the important demographics have been given their moment in the spotlight, all your ducks are in a row, and all of a sudden an album like Julie Miller's Blue Pony comes along, reminding you of why you got into this glamorous, high-powered profession in the first place: an album that is so damn good that you can't wait to tell people about it.
With Blue Pony Miller has created a masterpiece. She works within the boundaries of popular form and expectation, but invests the result with the kind of resonance that is far from standard. It's a genius that most resembles that of Sam Phillips, who does the same thing with straight-ahead pop. That's not the only parallel between the two: Phillips is married to Yber-producer T Bone Burnett, while Miller is the partner of the phenomenal Buddy Miller, whose 1995 Your Love and Other Lies was one of the best albums of that year; Miller is currently playing guitar with Emmylou Harris' touring band. (Although Julie has been opening for Harris on the road--keeping her and Buddy together--she did not do so for Harris' two-show appearance at Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams last May 20. More's the pity.)
There's another common thread that runs through the careers of Julie Miller and Sam Phillips: Both women started out in Christian music before opting for a wider, less limited arena. Miller put out four albums before Blue Pony, full of tuneful, literate, and compassionate ruminations on love, redemption, and obligation that were light-years deeper than what the industry was settling for at the time. Blue Pony continues her ambitious approach: Truly affecting music doesn't just reflect the now, but to some degree all of what came before. Blue Pony is full of the echoes of country music's roots, be they ancient--the Scotch-Irish music that immigrants brought (the almost-fairy tale "Forever My Beloved," full of pipes, fiddles, and green distant shores)--or only a few years removed (the poignant "Appalachia Song," a forgotten Lowell George-John Sebastian collaboration). It's a sense of Historical awareness that she reinforces by often employing archaic--or at least old-fashioned--syntax and sentence structure. A finely burnished acoustic glow has been applied throughout the album, shining tenderly not only through expected instruments like mandolin, fiddle, and banjo, but also exotica like bouzouki and harmonium. The more unusual instruments give the album an off-center sound that's almost Oriental at times.
Miller didn't exactly stumble into such transcendence. Husband Buddy's Your Love and Other Lies was full of expertly rendered honky-tonk bounce, tear-jerking regret, and dance-floor dip and sway; Blue Pony is the female complement to Buddy's vision. He helps out on the album, making effective use of his mandoguitar--a custom instrument that looks like a cross between an solidbody electric guitar and a mandolin. His awesomely wide palette of tones is the textural support that enables his wife's remarkable voice the freedom to conjure up vulnerability, despair, wonder, wisdom, fatigue, and suspicion. Her voice is high and a bit girlish--betraying in spots her admiration of SoCal pop singer Valerie Carter--but never deployed without savvy and control. If there ever was a casting call for the voice of a Japanese anime character who was a hip, beautiful, thoughtful, young barroom chanteuse, Julie would get the part.
Her lyrics are complex, always aware that any choice has a cost and that the heart and the head aren't necessarily in alignment--that what you want isn't necessarily what's good for you. On the disc-opening "A Kiss on the Lips," she sings that she doesn't "want to see the situation out of disguise," a dissonance presaged by Buddy's first distorted mandoguitar chords. Although "Kiss" is about as KERA-ready as a song ever gets, Miller immediately jumps into "Take Me Back," with its hard country edge and keening, bluegrass-style vocals. This is a standard country song type, but the way in which Miller admits to screwing up but still can't bear the deep wounds of being left on her own makes it much more than your everyday weeper. "Take Me Back" is no glib attempt to weasel out of being held accountable, but a genuine cry of pain, aware that in its hurt is a measure of justice.
No song sums this duality up better than "The Devil is an Angel," in which she takes what at first seems a basic symbolic switcheroo--"the Devil is an angel, too"--and invests it with more. Although she could just be singing to a love that's known to be both sweet and dangerous, there's something in the spare, minor-key Celtic-blues accompaniment that suggests bigger doubts and larger, lurking troubles, that lust is but one thing that the world offers and that the soul hangs ever in the balance.
"That song is about some guys that I've known," Miller says from her home in Nashville, where she and Buddy are resting in between Emmylou tours. "It's about my own betrayal experiences, but it's also about some people I've known who claimed to be Christians but really didn't act like it. Some people have heard that I used to be a gospel singer, and I just wanted to let them know that I, too, understand that some of these gospel people on TV might not necessarily be who they claim to be."
Miller says that she tries not to worry too much about messages and implications in her songs. "I'm a pretty analytical person, but with songs, I found along the way that the more analytical I got about music, the harder it was--like that analytical left brain didn't do music," she concludes with one of the laughs that pepper her conversation. "I just found this other feeling-place, and I don't think about it very much. Of course, you do have to think about words that rhyme and stuff, but it's kind of an accumulation of my life experiences. There could be a little bit about a certain person, but usually not--it's a lot more about everything, [bigger things] like how we're so easily deceived as people because we end up believing what we want to believe and learn the hard way."
Miller takes a similar approach to constructing her songs. "Mood is the biggest factor, but usually songs just sort of happen, like when I'm walking down the hall to go to the bathroom. I have to capture these things on tape when I'm motivated, because I won't remember them. It's funny, because when I listen to these things back on tape, sometimes they don't even ring a bell--I'm like, 'What was that? What's that?'"
She's not exaggerating. The first song of hers that many encountered was the eerie ballad "All My Tears," off of Emmylou Harris' groundbreaking Wrecking Ball; later, the song was covered by jazz singer Jimmy Scott. The first time she heard Scott's version, she didn't recognize it at all. "It was really strange, to hear a song you wrote and not recognize it. The lyrics sorta sounded familiar. When I wrote it, I thought I was writing a bluegrass song. When Emmylou and Daniel Lanois did it, it was an incredible, really cool song, but it definitely wasn't a bluegrass song, and then this other jazz version comes out. I guess I'm going to have to get Ralph Stanley to do it."
Although Blue Pony does have some upbeat numbers on it--"Letters to Emily" is a bouncy acoustic number that celebrates the rewards of having a soulmate (although at the same time it recognizes the frustration that comes with that kind of bond), and "Last Song" is a gentle declaration of faith and changeless love--many may find the overall tone of the album a bit sad, which provokes merry laughter from Miller.
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"We had quite a few songs that we were fooling around with, trying to decide what to put on the album," she explains. "I really wasn't paying attention until people started asking me all these questions, so I went back and listened to the album and it was like, 'My gosh, all these songs are so melancholy!' But it wasn't deliberate." She seems highly tickled by the whole deal. "I think the next album I put out will just be a bunch of meaningless songs," she says, vainly trying to suppress a giggle. "I just want to rock!"
The giggles subside. "Here's what's funny," she says. "I've got all these animals around here, cats and squirrels and possums. I worked in children's music for a long time, and every day I'm constantly making up these little rhyming songs for the cat, or the squirrel, and I guess that's where all my happy songs go--they're just not very recordable for adults. I guess that it's those sort of heart-breaking things that inspire me musically. The part of myself that I need to express musically isn't the part of me that comes up in normal conversation."
The parallel paths that she and Sam Phillips traveled intersected at one point: Phillips picked Miller's demo tape out of her slush pile and gave it to her producer, which started her out on her four-album gospel career, a trail she regards as more of a detour now. "It wasn't really what I planned to do," she says. "I think that my musical sound seems to be better understood by non-gospel audiences, and they seem to like me better. I'm not even sure that many people know that much about that [gospel] part of me."
It doesn't really matter; for Miller--as for her music--the past still exists in the present, even if it's in the form of knowing what you don't want to do. She plays country music in the manner that Emmylou referred to when, speaking of her own Wrecking Ball, she allowed "We live in a country, so..." Certainly the mysticism of folk is there in Blue Pony, as is the sturm und twang, the pathos and regret, of C&W. What's important is that these things exist not as a result of some marketing consultant's check list, but as honest vehicles for expression. On that high level, Julie Miller and Blue Pony succeed brilliantly.