In country music, as in rock, the dividing line between commercial and alternative has become fuzzy in recent years, as indie-oriented artists found Nashville hungry for good new songs and smaller labels strove to grab talent on its way up. The husband-and-wife duo of Buddy and Julie Miller could be the poster children for this phenomenon. Five years ago they were pigeonholed as Americana artists, recording for Oakland's tiny HighTone Records and producing the kind of soulful, eclectic hard-country that a handful of fans worship and the rest of the world ignores.
Slowly, though, both artists established themselves as fixtures in Nashville. Buddy broke through first as the lead guitarist in Emmylou Harris' band, eventually supplying tunes for Top 40 megastars such as the Dixie Chicks and Brooks & Dunn. Julie followed next, with her idiosyncratic songwriting finding an unlikely home in Music City, as witnessed by a recent Lee Ann Womack album packed with her compositions.
And yet success, we're told, is both a blessing and a curse. The wear and tear of show business is a major theme of Buddy Miller's fine new solo album, Midnight and Lonesome, an effort bitterly tinged with the scars of Sept. 11. On “Water When the Well Runs Dry,” Miller proclaims himself “a man of peace, with some exceptions,” and laments the feuds and bloodshed that made his tour schedule seem less and less significant. Songs by musicians about being musicians are traditionally a rather hollow exercise, but Miller succeeds by avoiding “Gee, it's hard to be on the road and still write a good tune” navel-gazing, focusing instead on the same soul-searching angst that many people felt after the attacks.
Which isn't to say that Miller's new album is all gloom and doom — indeed, it's filled with the rollicking, bluesy melodies he's known for. Muscle-bound bar-band riffs flourish, interwoven with spry Cajun fiddle (courtesy of Tammy Rogers) and sweet slide guitar. On “Wild Card,” the Millers duet on a love song that could have been recorded by any number of '50s honky-tonkers, and the album's closer, “Quecreek,” is a spooky throwback to the old-fashioned topical story-song (about a Pennsylvania mining disaster that happened a few months before the disc came out). Powerful records like this show why the Millers, whether high-rolling on Music Row or hauling their own amps into your local neighborhood dive, are at the heart of modern country music.