“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.
The Millers also forged another connection during their stay here. “There's a fellow Joe Goldmark, a pedal steel player, and his wife, Kathi,” says Buddy. “When I first got back into playing, I played bass in Kathi's band — I hadn't been playing for years and that got me back into playing.”
“He's the best musician I've ever played with,” says Kathi Kamen Goldmark of Buddy. Her band at the time, Four Shy Guys, had placed a “Bass Player Wanted for Country-Rock Band” ad and Buddy had replied. “He could play every instrument better than anyone in the band,” she remembers.
But there would be a few more years scraping around before the couple got a break. “I got sidetracked with a lot of other things and I was doing whatever I needed to do to pay rent, which a lot of the time was playing some real funky gigs,” explains Buddy. “When the phone rang for me to do a record for HighTone, at that point, I kind of had resigned myself to not doing a record. I don't know what went wrong with their release schedule … maybe somebody fell out, but they needed a record and they asked me if I wanted to do it.”
“That sounds like Buddy,” laughs Larry Sloven, managing partner of Oakland's HighTone label, who doesn't remember the details of Miller's signing but remembers first coming upon his songs. “Jim Lauderdale said this guitar player friend of his was a great musician and we thought, sure ….” But the label was happy with Buddy's songs and used them for a sampler called Points West: New Horizons in Country Music, released in 1990. For whatever reasons, it took five more years for another callback.
Meanwhile, Julie was busy writing and recording her own songs as a Christian artist. On the strength of her contributions to Buddy's debut album, 1995's Your Love and Other Lies, Julie was invited to join the HighTone roster as a solo artist; she made her secular debut with 1997's Blue Pony. “It was really always what was in my heart to do,” she says. “And um, the Christian thing was something that I didn't ever really see myself doing. I think I do have things that I could put into song to express my feelings about God to other believers, so I went ahead and did that, but really, I felt it was something just for that period of time. This is what I always intended to do,” she says.
Married since 1983, Julie credits the success of her and Buddy's creative and romantic partnership to their shared faith. “We kinda had a relationship before we came to know Jesus but it was completely explosive and completely nuts and just as crazy and stupid as it gets. We get our ultimate security and deepest fulfillment from him so that we don't have to get all of our deepest fulfillment from one another. When we made that commitment to each other … we'll never break it. Unless somebody runs over us and kills us, there's just no way! It's just not even a consideration to break it,” she says.
It's also not a consideration for Buddy to don a big hat while Julie stands by her man in hopes of becoming a part of the bigger, flashier Nashville scene. “Maybe a long, long time ago,” says Buddy. “At this point, I'm too old to fit in. When I made my first record, I really thought I was making a regular country record. I thought it was along the lines of what was being done in Nashville. I was aware of Steve [Earle] but I didn't know about the No Depression scene — I don't know if it was around then. Things have worked out so much better than I imagined they would.”
That country music hit-makers are decidedly interested in what the Millers are doing — “Don't Tell Me” was recorded by Lee Ann Womack; Brooks & Dunn recorded their “My Love Will Follow You”; and George Ducas does “I'm Pretending”; Buddy and Lauderdale wrote “Hole in My Head,” recorded by the Dixie Chicks — doesn't mean the couple fit in or that there are any “hey y'all”s offered up at the local grocery or coffee shop. Nor does Julie have any idea how jazz vocalist Jimmy Scott came to record her song “All My Tears.”
“I only saw a documentary on him. I didn't even know who he was,” she says. “I'm still not exactly sure how he got ahold of the song. I think it somehow came from him hearing Emmylou do it. I never have heard exactly how that happened. I would really like to know and I'd sure love to meet him.
“Buddy and I have had people cover our songs we haven't even met,” she continues. “It's really weird. When I started out in music, I'd see all the names and I imagined all the people being best of friends and knowing everything about each other; maybe it did used to be that way, but it's not like that. It's so strange.”