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Free and Kindred Spirits

The married team of Buddy and Julie Miller blends styles in a quest to stay independent.

March 26, 2000|JOHN MILWARD | John Milward is a freelance writer based in Woodstock, N.Y

NEWARK, N.J. — Julie Miller sits down in a food court at Newark Airport while her musical and marital partner, Buddy Miller, checks them into their flight to Nashville. Minutes earlier, Buddy had to stand firm to fend off a $300 overcharge on the rental car they'd used for a series of East Coast dates that had ended the night before at the Bottom Line in New York.

"Driving ourselves around was thrilling at 20," says Julie, a 43-year-old who's quick with a laugh. "But at this stage, 'Let's go home.' "

The Millers might be the hippest musical couple in Nashville, but that doesn't count for much in a company town that regards a tour bus as standard equipment. Instead, the Millers are stars of the alternative-country world. They help each other record individual solo records in their home studio for the independent HighTone label, place the occasional song on somebody else's mainstream album and work with such other free spirits as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Jim Lauderdale.

Buddy and Julie Miller make for an oddly cohesive musical couple. Julie's a singer-songwriter with a taste for rock, a poetic lyrical gift and a voice that blends girlish innocence with hard-won wisdom. Buddy, 47, is an ace guitar player, a rootsy producer and a honky-tonk singer with a taste for soul music.

It's the tangy blend of their vocal harmonies that connects their quite different but equally well-received 1999 albums, Julie's "Broken Things" and Buddy's "Cruel Moon." The annual Village Voice poll of U.S. critics confirmed this puzzling synchronicity: "Cruel Moon" came in at No. 49, while "Broken Things" ranked 51.

The Millers' critical renown has been on the rise since the 1995 release of Buddy's first album, "Your Love and Other Lies," which Earle called "the country record of the decade." On the strength of Julie's singing and songwriting on that record, HighTone signed her and released "Blue Pony" in 1997. (During the early '90s, Julie, with the help of Buddy, released four albums to the Christian market.)

"Broken Things," a tune first recorded for one of her Christian albums, contains the sort of romantic and spiritual ambiguity found in songs by the likes of Hank Williams, Sam Cooke and Al Green. "You can have my heart," starts the second verse, "if you don't mind broken things. . . . Well I heard that you make old things new, so I give these pieces all to you. If you want it you can have my heart."

"When you talk about emotional things," says Julie, who neither flaunts nor hides her faith, "most people can relate to it. In a way, the strictly Christian audience, which is mostly younger, related less to my songs than the honky-tonk audience. But I've always had a problem with either group of people putting the other group in a box. I just feel like I've got to be myself wherever I am."

Mission accomplished. At the Bottom Line, Julie looked at her fingers when she changed guitar chords, and her occasionally serious stage patter took funny, Gracie Allen-like turns. Buddy's the consummate musician and far more reserved.

"I used to really try to focus on the process of writing a song," says Julie, "but then I realized that my songs come from a place that's not really about thinking. I have to go off into a sort of underwater trance to write a song. And I have to keep a tape recorder running, because I forget everything instantly."

That's where Buddy comes in, to help flesh out the sound. "A lot of songwriters use a drum machine while they're writing," he says. "I'm Julie's human beat box, the happy strummer who must never tire."

Julie's albums are filled with solo copyrights. Buddy's songs are mostly co-written with Julie (who keeps a separate notebook of country-like "Buddy" lyrics) or Lauderdale, a successful Nashville songwriter and another talented performer without a bus whose resume includes 10 songs recorded by George Strait.

Buddy Miller's writing time is limited by his second career as a guitarist and record producer. He spent three weeks co-producing Jimmie Dale Gilmore's critically lauded "One Endless Night."

Buddy's also the lead guitarist in Emmylou Harris' Spyboy band; he co-produced that group's live album and is playing on Harris' next studio record. Harris, who recorded Julie's "All My Tears" on "Wrecking Ball," has made guest appearances on all the Millers' albums.

"When I was planning to take 'Wrecking Ball' on the road," says Harris, "I immediately thought of Buddy because he can create that atmospheric sound and play more traditional styles with equal empathy. He's also a great singer. When he and Julie sing, they have a blend that creates that wonderful third voice."

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