Buddy and Julie Miller live just a short bicycle ride from Nashville's Music Row. The songs they've written are all over the country charts and on platinum albums by the Dixie Chicks and Brooks & Dunn. They even accompanied Lee Ann Womack on their song "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger" at the recent CMA Awards. But the couple's personal and artistic existence is many miles away from the Music City hit factory.
In fact, the Millers may as well be on Mars. "We're just a few blocks down the street, but I have no idea what goes on there," says Buddy. "Some of it might be fine, but I have no idea. Don't listen to it, don't care to." He says this without a trace of disdain. It's just a fact.
Nonetheless, the Millers are the reigning king and queen of alternative country. This year found them featured on the cover of No Depression and praised in The New York Times for what the writer called their "off-brand country." Buddy also serves as the vocal and instrumental foil for Emmylou Harris, and Julie recently signed on to the Harris touring band as well. His three solo albums are praised as classic country made with a modern consciousness, while her two latest records brim with a luxuriant mix of rock, folk and country backing songs charged with mysticism and deep humanity.
Buddy and Julie Miller
Continental Club, 3700 Main Street
Friday, December 14; 713-529-9899
So it was gratifying to see the Millers receive the credit that was their due at the CMA Awards show, although Julie doesn't seem terribly impressed by the experience. "There was so much security there," she exclaims. "It was like all these people trying to keep everyone away from the stars, and here I was going, 'Hey, I'm just trying to find the bathroom.' "
After decades on the periphery of the business of music, the Millers still exist quite happily there, thank you very much. Julie is a native Texan who grew up in Austin, where she began singing during what's now rightly called the "great progressive country scare" of the 1970s. Like Jerry Jeff Walker, Buddy hails from New Jersey and spent time as an itinerant guitarist before landing in Austin, where he met Julie when he auditioned for the band she was in. "Julie told them not to hire me," he recalls, "because she was 16 or so, and wanted to appear discriminating. They hired me anyway, and we became pals."
The two migrated north to New York City, where they were the house band at Manhattan's Lone Star Cafe (declared the "Official Texas Embassy" in the Big Apple by the Texas legislature). Later they took part in the 1980s Southern California neo-country movement alongside Dwight Yoakam, Lucinda Williams, Rosie Flores and Jim Lauderdale. But it was only after moving to Nashville in the 1990s that they were introduced to wider audiences when HighTone Records offered them individual record deals.
Having written songs together and worked on each other's records, it seems only natural, if not inevitable, that the couple would one day collaborate on an entire album. But it wasn't really their idea. "Somebody just suggested it during an interview, and it clicked, like, yeah, we ought to do that," explains Buddy. "We'd always thought about keeping them separate."
As well-crafted and thoughtful as their new release, simply titled Buddy & Julie Miller, sounds, it came about organically, as has most everything the Millers have done. "At first we were going to do this country duets record, and had a list of song pieces to start from. But then I'd be out on the road with Emmylou," Buddy says, "and whenever I'd come back, Julie would have some new songs started that I really liked that had a whole different feel to them. So we just switched it around."
The disc combines Julie's compositions and one they wrote together with songs by other writers that have been part of their repertoire for some time now: Richard Thompson's "Keep Your Distance," Bob Dylan's "Wallflower" and the folk classic "Rock Salt and Nails" by Bruce "Utah" Phillips. The record's most chilling moments come on the song "Rachel," which Julie wrote about Rachel Joy Scott, a 17-year-old devout Christian killed in the Columbine High School shootings. In her diary, found after the tragedy, Scott intimated her premonitions about the fate that would befall her and her fellow students.
Julie, who holds a deep if nondenominational Christian faith, was moved by Scott's belief that her time on earth was short and that she could honor God by serving other people. "It was just so amazing that this young girl would know that," she says. A cosmic connection was revealed when Julie wrote to a friend and fellow singer that she was composing a song about the teenager. Rachel turned out to be her friend's niece. "I cried the entire time I was writing it," Julie says. Such genuine emotion is a hallmark of all the Millers' albums, which they record at their house in Nashville.
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But now, the two are out on an all-too-rare tour of their own before hitting the road again with Harris. After that, Buddy says, he's planning on the both of them taking time off simply to make music for the sake of doing so.
Told what her husband has said, Julie is overjoyed. "Good," she says. "He loves to schedule everything, and there's always this going on as soon as that gets finished. And I just want to sit down and not think about the results and be creative." It's probably that yin and yang that invests the Millers' music with such potency. Julie is the free-spirited artist, while Buddy is the casual yet meticulous craftsman known for his taste and restraint as a guitarist and producer. "Make it count" is his succinct approach to music.
With the rather bountiful "mailbox money" now coming in from the nearby foreign land of Music Row, the Millers can afford to take time off to indulge their inspirations. And the covers have come to them through the fortuity of the singers hearing and liking their songs rather than any trolling of the Row with songs in hand.
"We're not what you'd call hustlers," notes Buddy. "We've been pretty lucky. But it's not like we're rolling in it. We do still have eight cats to feed, and believe me, that gets expensive." Life on Mars, it seems, is very low-key.