image: Kate York

Buddy & Julie Miller

Love, and other special powers

Nashville has emerged from its elemental roots to flourish today, expressively, as the tip of the American tongue. It is a writers’ town unparalleled, and a diverse musical cauldron in spite of itself and its own history.

The city lives at the natural intersection of songwriting, music, and poetry — a marvelous reality of fiction and non-fiction. There is truth in the unseen when artists roam the streets. It is a gathering place, and people and animals have been drawn here for centuries, dating to pre-history, along the banks of the river, to hunt and sustain. Nothing has changed.

Feed yourself. Feed your head.

Buddy and Julie Miller, or Julie and Buddy Miller, depending on who’s running point, instinctively knew to come here in 1993, after a lifetime of chasing the spirit animals.

Now, established paladins of the Nashville music scene, on the heels of a powerful musical reunion with the summer release of Breakdown on 20th Ave. South, they are able to reflect on their place in the city’s sprawling, rhythmic history.

“I think we never really thought [we’d live here],” Buddy says, sitting with Julie in the downstairs studio space at their home. “When we finally ended up moving to Nashville, we moved here from L.A. We lived in San Francisco before that, the Seattle area before that. After Austin, after New York.

“And we thought Nashville was always the end of the line — the bottom of the barrel — where bad music came from. And when we moved here — we didn’t have high hopes for our music career. We thought basically it was over.”

But it was with a random practical logic the two turned their attention south to the heart of the Bible Belt and the seat of country music.

“We thought ‘let’s move there,’” Julie says, laughing. It is her essential state. “We’d wasted so much money in San Francisco and L.A. on rent, we thought we better do something — buy a house or we’re going be too old. So we moved here to buy a house. It’s why we came.”

Buddy expands on the practical thread.

“We moved here for economics,” he says. “I was playing guitar with [Jim] Lauderdale. He’d showcase for new deals every six months because he’s been on every single label that’s ever been. He’s maybe one of the reasons that they aren’t anymore, some of them.

“We’d showcase, we’d get in. I picked up one of those [real estate] magazines in the store. It was the one that’s not there anymore, off Music Row. I think they called it the ‘Murder Market.’”

He took the magazine back to Los Angeles and gave it to Julie.

“There’s a picture of this really cool house,” Julie says. “Now, of course you’d find out that they’re all falling apart and in a dangerous place, but they looked so great. We thought ‘God, we’ve got to go there.’”

“But we also found out, within a very short time of moving here, that it was not what we thought,” Buddy says. “It was such a great community of like-minded musicians and songwriters. And then our friends started coming, Lucinda [Williams] and Lauderdale, they moved out shortly after.”

Buddy is leaning back against the sound board. These are people who hold the sense of one another in high esteem. They’re happy. They talk about their punk rock dog, and remember scenes that led them here; led them to this most recent record. They are humbled still by the attention they receive, and may be the most unpretentious of hillbilly rock stars in town.

Their partnership was unlikely, a long shot, just considering the original geography. They began separately as raw elements, in a story well-documented, with Buddy bouncing from Woodstock to the Russian River in California, and Julie growing up from the ground in Texas with special powers. Creativity requires cultivation — big medicine can grow from the down and dirty, and the 1970s provided a Petrie dish of sorts for them both.

“I was in a band, and we were in a hippie van and playing on the street in California,” Buddy says. “We had hopes of a real deal, but it fell through. We ended up playing on the street every day to get money. We were in a school bus with all our girlfriends and all our dogs.

“The guy that owned the Russian River Inn heard us and dug it. He let us live there. Some of us slept on sleeping bags on a bar. But, something about the Austin music scene was drawing me there. I mean, I’d just read about it and went there solo.”

The room in their house is filled with sunlight, bathing the narrative of a love story which has unfolded here, laid bare on Breakdown.

Julie is talking about the Texas days when she hitched a ride back with a steel guitar player to Austin from North Texas State in Denton to play music. How she hung posters in the street for the Armadillo World Headquarters one step ahead of freefall. Of her admiration for psychedelic poster artist Jim Franklin. How she and Buddy first met there in 1976.

There’s always been a crackling energy flow, a cascading spill of real magic to their work. Their songs have always possessed the bite of the real world intermingled with the unseen, emotional heart of living everyday life. You can’t buy that. It’s a gift. The Millers come from the original source — close to the battery of rock ‘n’ roll; close to the illuminating sources of American roots music; country when it counts.

A closer look flips the long shot on its head, and it seems in some way the rowdy, random universe of expression meant for them to collide.

There are no visible tattoos on either of them, but they are marked just as surely with their own words. Just as surely as one of Buddy’s licks can cut straight through those roots, and beyond. Their resulting union of music has been a celebration of life’s challenges. Everyone relates to fear and love, getting on or falling flat. It comes from knowing the human condition and calling it out.

They left Austin, and the band Partners in Crime, for New York. They would marry in 1982.

“I don’t know why,” Buddy says. “But I guess the Austin music scene was going down a little bit, or hit a peak and had just gone past peaking around 1980. And we moved to New York because there was a strange country rock music scene up at the Lone Star Cafe and City Limits, and other places.”

The Lone Star Cafe attracted other disaffected Texans, among many searchers, who were looking for a convergence of country, rock and blues. Buddy’s sensibilities on the guitar were developing into the sound he would bring to Nashville the following decade. Julie’s songwriting had begun to speak more personally. The pair continued to earn their bones.

“The Lone Star was a great club,” he says. “So we went from one great scene to another great scene.”

“It [the Lone Star Cafe] really reminded me of the Armadillo in its incredibleness,” Julie says. “It had a lot of the same kind of people playing, but it had a lot more blues guys at the time. Old blues guys. And we got to open for Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. We opened for Willie Dixon. I was so young that I didn’t know who some of these guys were. It was a great education.”

And it was in Manhattan where Julie would have a spiritual awakening as the two unloaded gear in an alley behind a nightclub. It was the trigger, leading her to embark on a solo career in Christian music, producing an early version of the song “Broken Things.” She released four albums, as Buddy played lead guitar and sang with Lauderdale. They relocated to the Northwest, moved from Seattle to San Francisco, then down to Los Angeles. They refer to those years as the “bankrupt” years, though Julie says they didn’t know it. By the time they moved to Nashville, they had tempered expectations.

The Millers landed here in a time of intervention, when artists were responding to Nashville’s lost soul of the 1980s, searching for a tangible hold. Toward the end of the decade, the scene on Lower Broad began to reawaken, thanks in large part to Greg Garing, BR549, and Brazilbilly. Simultaneously, Buddy and Julie Miller began to gain traction.

“My honky-tonk roots were so deep, you don’t want to know,” she says, still laughing.

Buddy made some progress on the session side, and they both continued writing songs. He built a studio in that first home (located directly across the street from their
present one).

“I was playing guitar for Lauderdale,” Buddy says. “And we opened some dates for Emmylou in Europe, in Holland, and because of that I got the nerve up to ask her manager if she would possibly sing harmony on Julie’s version of ‘All My Tears.’

“Emmylou, who’d always been a hero for both of us, heard it, and loved the demo and held onto it. She never told us she was going to consider it, so it was a big surprise when she cut it.”

The song, “All My Tears (Be Washed Away)” appeared on Harris’s critical album Wrecking Ball in 1995, and was also recorded by storied jazz singer Jimmy Scott.

“Emmylou recorded Julie’s song and then, around that same time, HighTone asked Lauderdale to do a track on a compilation they were putting together,” Buddy says. “A box set called Points West, and he had just signed to whatever label it was that year [Atlantic] and told them he couldn’t do it. He recommended me, and I did a cut. I guess they probably had a hole in their release schedule, and they called and asked me if I wanted to do a record. Well, sure.”

He recorded the straight-up country record Your Love and Other Lies (1995) for HighTone on a Studer A80 two-inch tape machine, which was missing a wheel.

“We propped it up with some books and when I put that thing in rewind, it sounded like a refrigerator and a dryer combined,” he says. “And so, the amazing thing was we put that record out, and I think every song on the record got cut. I didn’t know the interest was there. They didn’t all get cut right away, but pretty much every song off that record has been recorded — so that was another big surprise.”

“It was so fun to us,” Julie says. “It was like, when you don’t hope for something and then you get it … then you don’t want to hope for anything.”

Heads slowly began to turn. A good song in this town has a way of finding ears, and two from that record found Brooks & Dunn and George Ducas. And, the label heard Julie’s unique expression on “Hole in My Head” from Your Love and Other Lies, and took notice. Her presentation of color and tone still holds true today, the gift that keeps on giving.

“They thought I was tough,” she says.

She would release her own secular debut Blue Pony for HighTone in 1997, an everlasting mix of Celtic, folk, blues, and mountain music set to a rocking beat. Buddy released his second record for the label, Poison Love, also in 1997, and played guitar for Harris in Spyboy and for Earle on his El Corazon tour. Earle assisted on another Buddy record, Cruel Moon in 1999, also for HighTone, as Julie managed to release Broken Things for the label the same year.

These were the flashes that made the Millers, and confirmed they had found their creative home, albeit quite accidentally. There are markers along the way with this town’s evolution — the strange and polished rowdiness of the 1940s and 1950s, the smooth countrypolitan sound that emerged in the 1960s, the arrival of Dylan, the subsequent Outlaw reckoning, and the wide open “Paris in the Twenties” phenomenon which brought Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Roseanne Cash, Steve Earle, and others out into the light, the days when songwriters were once again leaning into the wind.

The pair was establishing another, visceral musical marker of their own.

The undeniable dynamic which the label had noted earlier would prompt them to ask for a creation from the Millers together. The juxtaposition of her voice against his down and dirty carriage produced Buddy & Julie Miller in 2001. That record earned the Americana Music Association award for Album of the Year, and was nominated for a Grammy. It would be eight years before the duo would produce another. Buddy would release one more solo project for HighTone in 2002, Midnight and Lonesome, before he and the label would part ways.

In 2004, Buddy released the acclaimed Universal United House of Prayer on New West, where they remain today. That record earned the 2005 Americana Music Association award for Album of the Year and also yielded that organization’s Song of the Year with “Worry Too Much.”

When they finally produced a follow-up collaboration in 2009 with Written In Chalk, the effort won four Americana Music Association awards — Artist of the Year for Buddy, Duo/Group of the Year for them both, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year for Julie’s “Chalk,” recorded by Buddy and Patty Griffin.

And though Buddy would earn other awards in the following years, including a Grammy for producing Patty Griffin’s Downtown Church in 2010, his varied musical commitments would place the Millers’ collaboration in the deep freeze. He toured with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand tour, and as part of the Three Girls and Their Buddy tour with Harris, Griffin, and Shawn Colvin. He suffered a heart attack while out on that tour and underwent triple bypass surgery, a frightening brush with disaster from which he has recovered. He toured the U.S. and Europe with Plant’s Band of Joy in 2010, and continued working with Lauderdale down through the years. Their Buddy & Jim Radio Show on SiriusXM Radio’s Outlaw Country channel is in its eighth year.

All the while, Buddy produced stellar records for a seemingly endless list of artists, including Allison Moorer, Colvin, Griffin, Richard Thompson, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Solomon Burke, the War & Treaty, Steve Earle, and others. He has co-produced records with Plant, Lauderdale, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and was Executive Music Producer for television’s Nashville for two years.

And, he has worked as an instrumentalist or vocalist for everyone. Literally, everyone. So, it is no wonder that Julie began to develop some frustration, even as she battled an increasingly protracted fight with fibromyalgia.

“Okay,” Julie says. “Kind of a perfect storm has happened in my life. I’ve had fibromyalgia since the late-70s, and it’s a progressively bad condition. And if you’re on the road, and you just can’t get any sleep, you’re either playing, coming, or going — if you don’t have something [yourself] — a sickness — you really don’t know what it’s like. You can try to sympathize with someone, but you don’t know what it’s like. And, you don’t know that you don’t know what it’s like.”

The condition, coupled with the sudden death of her brother in 2002 by lightning strike in Texas sent her into a spiral. Soon after they had signed with New West in 2004, Julie found herself unable to finish the record she was working on, and Buddy stepped in to complete his Universal United House of Prayer.

“He was gone,” she says.

“Yeah, I was gone a lot,” he says. “And, I was going to be gone a lot. I thought I could get that record done and then do hers. So I pushed that through. And that kind of shoved a wedge between us in a lot of ways.

“It was just one more time that just sent her into a spiral. And then I took every gig that came along. I just had a broke mentality of always being like, this is the last gig I’m ever going to get and that kind of thing. But then I was wrong and all these great gigs started happening, and I was absent. At least musically, and I was gone.”

Julie puts the hardest of times in perspective.

“After my brother passed, I mean, for like six months — it was just so strange to me that minds can be this way — I couldn’t even remember the name of the record I’d been working on,” she says. “This shocking trauma. And when you lose a sibling, you’ve got two grievings. You’ve got the grief because you’ve lost a sibling, and you’ve got the mother or parents’ grief that is huge, too.”

In the ten years following Written In Chalk, Julie would pick up the guitar but was disengaged.

“It had started to feel like music was my enemy,” she says. “It was like music meant Buddy was leaving, goodbye. And I had gotten really emotionally weaker. Grief and trauma can take a lot longer to get over than people imagine.”

After Buddy left the TV show Nashville, they began to spend more time just hanging out. She began to write songs as they continued to put off making another record together, and when she eventually played “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” as a message to Buddy, he was floored. The groundwork for Breakdown had begun.

“And while we were hanging out, after about a year, she started writing these songs,” Buddy says, referring to the songs that would inform the record. “She would pick up a guitar and a song would come out.”

“It started when he told me that they [New West] would take the record,” she says. “They just started coming out.”

Buddy began moving bits of gear to the upstairs bedroom, the space she began referring to as “Studio B.” The entire record would be recorded there. Breakdown is an emotional offering, one that rocks the foundation. These are Julie’s songs, and they both agree, this is Julie’s record. She became prolific, often waking in the morning with new, fully formed song ideas. The ones that would eventually appear lay bare the intense, personal aspects of their relationship — anyone’s relationship in reality — and leave few rocks unturned as they explore profound emotional territory, ranging from deep grief to longing and the sharper edges of love.

“Everything is Your Fault,” gets right to it, and the plaintive message behind “Storm of Kisses,” the lone co-write on the album between Julie and her nephew Alisdair MacKenzie about her brother’s death, cuts right to the heart. The title cut is a rocking howler. In its completeness, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South is bone-rattling shot.

“I didn’t want to put pressure on her, or a deadline,” Buddy says. “I didn’t want to get into that. Let’s just have fun with the songs, and try to record them on the head of a pin. And I didn’t spend that much time, I just brought a floor tom and an old bass upstairs, and a couple guitars, and we built tracks that way.”

“We just played,” she says. “We started to call it a record after about four songs. I suddenly became so prolific; it was blowing my own mind. It was like I had my own radio station on in my head. They were just coming out, and coming out, and coming out. I just kept writing and writing until we had a record we were happy with. Buddy is so good — he made them all sound great.”

When Julie joined Buddy onstage in June at the City Winery for their only gig in support of Breakdown, the packed house welcomed her so warmly, she seemed taken aback. With each passing song, she gained strength and the clarity of performance illuminated the room. It was a show of surprising force, built on soul to-soul conversation.

As Julie sang “I’ve got special powers coming right outta my eyes / You’ll obey everything they say / cause they know how to hypnotize,” from “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” she was telling the truth.

She does have special powers, and Nashville is hypnotized.

Buddy & Julie Miller’s latest release, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South, is available now on New West Records.