By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
"Hey Julie, I'm on that interview we have and I'll buzz you up for your portion in a minute 'cause that's what I'm doin'," says guitarist and singer/songwriter Buddy Miller to his wife Julie Miller, singer/songwriter and occasional guitarist. "We have an intercom," he explains. "It's too much trouble to run up and down the stairs. I'm in the studio room, which is really just underneath where I'm talking to Julie but I'm tired of running up and down the stairs," he explains.
Though Julie and Buddy Miller are a two-musician household, they maintain individual recording careers and very different styles. Julie's jangle-roots-folk-rock album Broken Things and Buddy's twangy Cruel Moon, both released in 1999, ended up on critics' year-end lists and charted only two places apart on the annual Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll (slots 51 and 49, respectively); Julie sang on Buddy's and Buddy played and sang on Julie's. While Julie writes all of her own songs and some of Buddy's too, Buddy also collaborates with friends like Jim Lauderdale and Steve Earle. Between them, they've worked with Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Victoria Williams. Their songs have been covered by country stars like the Dixie Chicks and Brooks & Dunn, as well as jazz vocalist Jimmy Scott. But few, except for a handful of die-hard No Depression and new country devotees, know the Millers by sight or by name.
Maybe it has something to do with their low-key, live-work aesthetic. "We're just like leaves in the wind," says Julie, the ethereal one, in her characteristically gentle and poetic style. While Julie's speaking and singing voices are childlike, she steers clear of adolescent lyrical fantasies or naive musical devices on her records. Instead she favors universal themes and classic roots-rock sounds, shying away from traditional country melody. Buddy, on the other hand, is forthright and all about hard-country; that's how he came to the attention of Earle, who signed him up as a touring guitarist and with whom he now trades songs. Yet when the Millers collaborate, instead of the oil and water-ish combination one might expect, the pair wind up with the perfect proportions of yin and yang.
"I go, 'Look, I won't sing punk rock on your record and don't sing like, so hicked-out on mine,'" says native Texan Julie. Oddly, it's her Ohio-bred husband whose gone to embrace everything countrified. "Isn't it the craziest thing? It is all completely bonkers. Nothing adds up. It's the funniest thing in the world." Julie laughs easily and right now, it sounds like she's busting a gut.
In between stops on a U.S. co-headlining tour, the Millers are at home for a spell, about to begin work on their first collaborative album. "We're probably going to start on it this evening," says Julie with the kind of ease one associates with cracking open a bottle of Coca-Cola on a hot Southern night. Though all of their solo recordings are collaborative and made at home, a Buddy and Julie album proper -- like a Tammy and George album -- is a highly anticipated affair in new country circles. At first the album was going to be a duets project, but for now that idea seems to have been scrapped. The couple isn't quite sure what's going to end up on it, but Julie's having some fun working up prospective titles: "Julie, Come Downstairs Where Buddy Is!" she jokes. "Julie and Buddy: Together at Last."
For a couple who operate outside the boundaries of the Nashville scene and spend most of their time on the road, their decision to set up a home studio in Country Music City was, like everything else in their lives, a happy accident. "We always joked about Nashville, but we don't plan things or really figure things out," says Julie. "We were eating spaghetti and Buddy goes, 'You know, if we ever move to Nashville, we could buy a house.' And I took a bite, and he took a bite. and I said, 'OK, well, let's move to Nashville.' I saw the front of one of the Nashville papers and I saw that Emmylou was queen of the Christmas parade and I was like, 'We'll go be with Emmylou!' We'd met her maybe a year before and she talked all about Nashville and we thought, 'If Emmylou Harris is there, how bad can it be?!'"
The couple had grown restless with their jobs singing in bars from coast to coast; they'd done stints in Seattle, New York, and L.A., among other stops. For three years in the mid- to late '80s, the pair were living in San Francisco but weren't playing much music, save the occasional gig at Sacred Grounds, a small cafe on the corner of Hayes and Cole that used to host rare folk nights with players like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Peter Case, Victoria Williams, and then-local J.C. Hopkins. "J.C. was sort of an inspiration -- what he was doing, just going out and working really hard," says Buddy of Hopkins, a folk singer-cum-Victoria Williams sideman and contemporary musical theater composer who's since relocated to New York. "And he was supportive. He came over and I recorded some demos for him and eased back in that way. We played at Sacred Grounds -- and that's where Julie met Victoria." The Millers have rolled with Williams' Rolling Creek Dippers, a loose group that also includes Jim Lauderdale and Williams' husband, Mark Olson. Williams and Julie Miller, with their naive and quirky mannerisms, unique voices, and shared faith, could be sisters; when they sing together, some of their bits evoke the sibling Southern Gothic of the Louvin Brothers.