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The Millers' Tale : Emmylou Harris Continues to Have a Knack for Finding Talented Pilgrims

June 21, 1997|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Emmylou Harris picks pickers the way a Wall Street Midas picks stocks.

For more than 20 years, the acclaimed country singer's recording and touring bands have reflected her stylistic diversity and her knack for attracting blue-chip talent.

Harris has employed bluegrass aces--among them Sam Bush and Al Perkins of her early-'90s band, the Nash Ramblers--and twangy roots-rock guitar heroes, including James Burton and Albert Lee. She has helped cultivate future marquee names, including Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Crowell, who found country stardom after hitches in her band.

Harris' standards haven't slipped with her latest picks.

When she hired Buddy Miller last year as her new guitarist, Harris got an all-around talent whose 1995 debut album, "Your Love and Other Lies," casts him not only as a strong guitar player, but as a confident, traditionally grounded singer and songwriter with the muscle, verve and tender streak of a Joe Ely.

Investing in Miller brought added value: His wife, Julie, recently put out "Blue Pony," a touching, poetic album that is among the year's strongest progressive-country releases.

Miller time will precede Emmylou time Sunday at the Coach House; the husband and wife team is her opening act. Then Buddy will take his spot in Harris' backing trio, along with the New Orleans rhythm duo of bassist Daryl Johnson and drummer Brady Blade.

Buddy Miller, 44, was low-keyed and affably no-nonsense in a phone interview this week from the couple's home in Nashville. Then he handed the phone to Julie, 40, who filled in the blanks--and more--with a voluble, breathy speaking voice punctuated with giddy laughter. The girlishness of her conversation carries over to her singing, except that on record her small, disarming voice loses the giddiness and becomes a glowing, compassionate vehicle for songs about loss and sorrow made bearable by faith.

While Emmylou Harris was surging to major stardom in 1976, the Millers were meeting cute in Austin, Texas.

Buddy had arrived in town from the Northeast, where he mainly grew up, drawn by a hot, freewheeling country music scene led by Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. He tried out for a local band called Rick Stein & the Alleycats, which featured Julie Griffin, a native of small-town Texas, as--in her words--"chick singer."

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Luckily for Buddy, Julie didn't have veto power in the band.

"I didn't really know if someone was good or not," she recalled with a laugh. "I thought I'd better play it safe and impress [the other members] with how critical I was. They hired him anyway because they could tell he was quite incredible."

Soon they were a couple, heading off to New York City in search of the late-'70s Urban Cowboy dream. They played regularly at Manhattan's favorite cowpoke joint, the Lone Star Cafe, but failed to land a record deal. Meanwhile, Julie was more or less cracking up.

"I was so self-destructive. I had a lot of unresolved drama in my life that I would dissociate out into spells of kind of psychotic episodes, like walking around New York City asking people to kill me. I would drink and do drugs. Buddy was the stable, quiet, silent observer who would get me out of a mental institution so I could open up for Muddy Waters."

Julie says she was saved by a religious conversion--"a real convincing experience of the presence of God"--that took place in the couple's New Jersey apartment. She believes that Bob Dylan's Christian records of the time, Harris' gospel-inflected "Roses in the Snow" album and a book about a man tortured behind the Iron Curtain for his Christian beliefs laid the seedbed for her big change.

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Julie promptly quit Buddy's band and headed off to a Christian commune in Texas.

"We had this Bible we kept under the sofa where the leg was missing," she said, referring to their New Jersey home. "Buddy, from what he's told me, started reading the Bible I'd left, trying to figure out what in the world happened to me because I'd been quite the wild honky-tonk princess."

Buddy soldiered on for a while with his band, settling for Shawn Colvin as Julie's replacement. But eventually he joined Julie in Texas, ready for a spiritual commitment--and a marital one as well.

Working with a ministry called Agape Force, they wound up in Tacoma, Wash. Julie got a record deal with Word, a Christian label, and Buddy helped produce her albums.

But the Christian market didn't respond, and the Millers were uneasy about confining their work to a religious market and religious themes. In the late-'80s, they landed in Los Angeles, where Buddy hooked up with Jim Lauderdale, an old friend from their New York days. He also sat in regularly with Orange County's excellent, all-purpose roots-music ensemble, Chris Gaffney & the Cold Hard Facts.

"He's an absolute pro, a mild-mannered guy who is a joy to work with," Gaffney said. "Anybody who gets a hold of him has a gem."

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