The Sounds of Buddy and Julie Miller's Living Room

by S. Renee Dechert


“We were actually in shock,” says Buddy Miller of the Americana Music Assocation’s recent decision to give the “Album of the Year” award to Buddy and Julie Millers’ 2001 self-titled debut album, written mostly by Julie. “We just didn’t think we were going to be winning. I don’t know why — we knew we were up for it. We were backstage at the time, going over the lines we had to read to make a presentation to Emmylou [Harris], and Julie was actually on her way up to go to the bathroom,” he laughs. Then I said, “You better wait just a second,” because we were up for this. “You’ll want to hear who won.” We thought, you know, Gillian [Welch] and David [Rawlings] — we’re huge fans of theirs, and I guess, maybe, assumed they were going to we. We would have voted for them if we could have voted.”

If you listen to at all, though, it doesn’t take much to see why the Millers won or their artistry at work, defined, in part, by a questioning spiritual/secular duality. (They’ve been married since 1981 though they’ve played together since the mid-‘70s when they met in an Austin band, Rick Stein and the Alleycats.) Buddy is a respected musician and producer — that’s him playing in Emmylou Harris’ Spyboy band, working with Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Patty Griffin (among others), and producing artists like Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Vigilantes of Love. Julie’s songs have been covered by a range of musicians, including Harris, the Dixie Chicks, and Lee Ann Womack.

Oh, and Buddy and Julie also make some pretty fine albums themselves: Julie’s Blue Pony and Broken Things, and Buddy’s Your Love and Other Lies (1995), Poison Love (1997), Cruel Moon (1999), and his most recent, Midnight and Lonesome (more on that last one in a minute). The Millers’ records always seemed like collaborative projects: Buddy records Julie’s songs, and she provides harmony vocals; she has him play, sing, and produce on hers. But in the end, they were solo projects.

Buddy explains, “I guess we always thought of our music as just kind of a separate thing. And it wasn’t until we were — it’s funny, I was doing an interview on one of my records, and the fellow I was talking to suggested it, and I went, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea! Julie, let’s do a record together.’ And so we did. It was that simple,” he laughs. “We always sing together, and we always sang country music together — that’s what our intention was when we started that record, was to make a real country record of duets, which we didn’t do, but we’re going to do next time, I think,” a project Miller hopes to see completed in a year or so.

But whether he’s working with Julie or someone else, it’s clear that Buddy Miller is an artist who relishes collaboration.

“I’ve just been really lucky, I think in who I’ve gotten to work with,” he says. “Working with Emmylou and Steve Earle, both of those have just been such enormously creative opportunities where they just allow you to do what you do and grow. Those two . . . I don’t know what you’d call them. Working with Emmylou every night is just an exploration in music, and working with Steve, I learned so much.”

Miller explains, “With Emmylou, [it’s] just her whole approach to music. I mean, the first thing, she just loves music so much and listens to so many different kinds of music that all of a sudden, I’m exposed to things that I wouldn’t ordinarily be drawn to or listen to on my own that I end up loving. But she just exposes herself to everything she can and soaks it up. In this town [Nashville], usually what the drill is when you get a job playing guitar for someone, you know, they have auditions, and then if you get the job, it’s, ‘Okay, here’s a stack of records; this is what the set is going to be for the next two years; learn these guitar parts and these solos off the record, and that’s what you’re playing — and, by the way, black pants, white shirt.’ Or something like that, you know.”

He continues, “With Emmylou, there were auditions, but that’s the end of it, pretty much. Then it’s, ‘Okay, we like your playing; let’s see where the music takes us.’ You don’t feel like you have to learn anything off any record. Let’s just get ourselves in the middle of this music and see what happens with it because it’s a journey that we’re gonna go on. That’s so unheard of, especially in this town. So that’s the whole, the exploration is something that I’m very in to and have been with Julie, and I think we both have gotten further along because of Emmylou.”

While equally satisfying, working with Earle is very different.

“With Steve, it’s a whole other thing. I mean, he just as deep into every kind of music you can imagine and knows so much. Traveling with him, you just learn a lot about life in general and about how — he’s just such a — I don’t want to call him a ‘professional’ because that sounds too serious, but he’s just so good at what he does, and hearing those songs that are as good as it gets every night, and getting to stand up there and sing with him, I don’t know exactly what it is that I say you learn, but I know I took in so much that I could never have gotten any other place.”

A recent high-profile collaboration for the Millers was their work with the Chieftains on Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions, an album to which the couple added the traditional song “Country Blues”.

“That was incredible!,” Miller says of the experience. “We’ve been Chieftains fans for — well, I can’t say from the beginning, but from, probably since 1980 or so, a good 20 years or so. We’ve loved the Chieftains. It was a dream to go in there and do a track with them.”

Miller’s blues roots run deep, something that’s immediately clear when listening to his playing, his writing, and his producing. His is the music of the front porch and honky-tonks.

“I love old music so much, everything from the Lomax records, which are all being reissued now — those field recordings — to old blues, you know, especially old Chess stuff when Willie Dixon was session leader, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf records,” Miller says. “The grooves on those records are so deep and so unattainable. It seems like today, records just can’t. It seems like not matter what you do, nothing can sound like that anymore, and I don’t understand why. I’m just drawn to that kind of stuff.”

He continues, “And old country stuff, Johnny and Jack, stuff where there’s a real strange element thrown in there — like in Johnny and Jack, there’s this weird, almost Caribbean, percussion thing going on through so many of their songs. Or they have that song ‘Uncle John’s Bongo’ that Bob Dylan completely ripped off for his ‘Tweedle Dee and Tweedle’ — whatever that thing is on his last record — note for note [Dylan’s ‘Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum’ from the fittingly named Love and Theft album]. I know that because ‘Uncle John’s Bongo’ was a song I was going to do on a duet record with somebody else. I had it written down — I love that song. Anyway, so I think, it’s obvious that old music is a great source of, just, musical inspiration, just those grooves, how they get that feel.”

“And then writing-wise,” Miller says, “I just like the simple stuff, and that tends to be a lot of the old music, too, which was a little simpler, but I’m also drawn to R&B and, specifically, songs like Dan Penn would write, Donnie Fritts, Spooner [Oldham], and that whole crew that wrote these soulful songs that had some country element in it.”

Then Miller adds, “I’m not that much of a writer. I write some. Julie’s much more the writer. The way is write is I start a song, and then I beg somebody to finish it for me. Usually, it’s Julie. Once in awhile, it’s Jim Lauderdale. That’s pretty much it. . . . And actually, there was a song on the new record that, I knew what I was feeling, and I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t think I could articulate it. I got the track and the song how I wanted it, and I went to a friend of mine, Bill Mallonee, and asked him to work with me on that — he’s a great writer, great lyricist. He’s in that band Vigilantes of Love. And so we wrote a song together on the record called ‘Water When the Well Is Dry’. So sometimes I’ll try to do more of a song, but when I’m married to Julie, and she’s in the house most of the time, I figure I’ll work in the areas that I’m strongest at.”

Apparent when listening to the Millers’ solo work is the way in which it embodies the Saturday Night-Sunday Morning dichotomy that has been a defining element for much of American culture. His is a vision grounded in the blues — just consider the dark titles and artwork of his albums.

“I don’t know why that is, exactly,” Miller says. “I don’t walk around all mopey, and Julie and I have a pretty good marriage, I think although we have all these songs, ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger’, and all these songs like, so that people assume we’re falling apart at the seams. But I think it’s just that those songs . . . that’s what comes out when we write a song. I’m not sure why. Maybe we see that happening to a lot of our friends.”

Laughing, he adds, “Maybe a lot of Julie’s music is the ‘Sunday Morning’ part, which is an interesting compliment. When we’re playing together, there’s a little bit of both going on there. She has a lot of songs that have an element of healing in there and hopefulness and faith; then the stuff that I counter with is a little down-and-out and funky-sounding.”

The Millers are not only solid writers themselves, but they also have a keen ear for cover songs - consider their version of Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance” or Buddy’s take on the Tom T. Hall classic “That’s How I Got to Memphis”.

“I’ve got a huge list of songs that I want to eventually do,” Miller says. “Like I said, I love old songs, and I’m a real fan of writers, and I’ve got just of list of songs that I’ll go through although on this record, I didn’t even get to it. A couple of friends suggested two of the songs to me, and I went, ‘Yeah, those are great songs.’ That was ‘The Price of Love’, an Everly Brothers song, and the Jesse Winchester song [‘A Showman’s Life”, with Emmylou Harris providing backing vocals], and then that Percy Mayfield song [‘Please Send Me Someone to Love’], I wanted a song with that feel, but I also wanted a song that was sort of a love song and yet a song kind of looking for something else in the world. It’s kind of a love song and a prayer almost at the same time, that Percy Mayfield song. He was an interesting lyricist-poet.”

Immediately clear is the central role personal voice plays in Miller’s music, an idea that seems almost anachronistic in today’s “music as product targeted at a certain desirable demographic/audience”. Miller’s difference in aesthetics is readily apparent — and he likes to work, not in some impersonal state-of-the-art studio but at Dogtown Studio, which happens to be in the basement of the Millers’ turn-of-the-century Nashville home.

“I think I just hear so many records that sound like big, bombastic recording-studio processed sounds,” Miller says. “There’s no way I could make a record sound like that, I don’t think — not in my house anyway. And I wouldn’t want to. I just kind of retreat from that into something that I hope sounds, at least, real and true to what I sound like with my friends playing in my living room, which is what we do. And, at this point, that’s kind of how I want to keep making records. Maybe some time, I’d like to go down another route, but I like a pretty organic, raw sound. And our house does have a sound to it. It’s just got a lot of wood, and then it’s got — I don’t know. It’s just got all this old furniture and old stuff in there, some of which is reflective, and just in the way it sounds when sounds bounce off of it. Every room has a sound to it — I kinda like the way our living room sounds.”

All of this brings us to Buddy Miller’s most recent project, Midnight and Lonesome, an album with plenty of living room.

“It came together real fast, and I didn’t know what I was going for,” he explains. “And I don’t really know what I got. I kind of look at records as more or less, sort of a snapshot of a period of time that few weeks I’m working on it. With this record, I just realized I had about three to four weeks off, and then when I looked at the calendar and saw that hole, I thought, Gosh, I should do a record. It was just that quick. I thought, I should do a record. Yeah, it’d be great to have a record out this year if I could because otherwise it would be another eight months before I could. So it was spur-of-the-moment. I thought, Do I have songs? I’ve got a few pieces and some ideas, and it’s a challenge, so let’s do a record. I’d kind of sit back and think of where I’m at musically and get an idea of what it might sound like, you know, just an overall, general feel, and then go in and call some friends up and record.”

Midnight and Lonesome is an exploration of country music’s roots — not the country-pop bastardization that’s marketed in Nashville today. From the opening guitar riff of “The Price of Love” to the album’s final track, Midnight and Lonesome is a personal album, a sit-down in the Millers’ living room.

Buddy, Julie, and old friend Jim Lauderdale worked on “When It Comes to You”, one of the album’s most interesting track, a piece of country funk, complete with boasting, a nice funky sound, and an instrument that’s rare these days, the optigan, which is part optical disc player, part organ.

As Miller explains, “That was done — a lot of it is the optigan, which was made — I don’t know if it was made — it was marketed by Mattel [Toy Company] in either the early ‘70s or late ‘60s. I’m not exactly sure. It looks like a console organ that would sit in the corner of some old folks’ apartment. Its kind of funny-looking, plastic, maybe four feet tall by three-and-a-half feed wide, a little console organ. But it was with buttons on the sides for chords, major, minor, and augmented, of course, and then a keyboard. They don’t make them now anymore. I think they only made them for a few years — they were sold with what looked like records that were the size of 12-inch vinyl records. Only when you held them up to the light, they were more like floppy discs with about 100 concentric circles, and you had to hold them up to the light, and what those circles were were actual sound recordings of bands in the studio playing what would now be called ‘grooves’ for every different chord, major, minor, and augmented. And then you have a speed thumbwheel on the keyboard, so you can slow it down or speed it up.”

He continues, “And what it was used for, you know, it came with songbooks — like there’s one songbook, ‘Everything Is Beautiful’, that goes with this record that has kind of that sort of beat to it. It’s very funny-sounding. A lot of them are Big Band records you put in — it shines a light through those concentric circles to play. That’s why ‘optigan’. It sounds like an old, scratchy record because that’s what it is. And there were about 60 different records, and you could play ‘Everything Is Beautiful’ or ‘Hits of the Day’, or you could sit around and make up songs with it, and that’s what I did. The disc I used has more of a R&B or Mowtownish feel, I guess, slightly, and then I put on some guitars and steel guitar and some bass pedals and some extra percussion.”

“I love the groove,” Miller adds. “I think it might be my favorite on the record. I love the groove, and the only funny thing about it that I had to make everything else sound as low-fi as the optigan. I mean, I know it sounds kind of funny, and maybe these days it sounds like, ‘Oh a lot of music sounds that way,’ but that’s as high-fi as that instrument can possibly sound, the way that track sounds. And it’s kind of funny when you just put a guitar on top of it because it sounds so clear and pristine, so I had to make it sound a little dirtier, and everything including the vocal until it all sounds sort of the same way as the optigan sounds. It was fun doing that track.”

Or there’s the rocking mountain waltz — country fiddle set against a rock beat — “Midnight and Lonesome”, written by Julie with a High Lonesome sound Ralph Stanley would be proud of.

“I love doing those kinds of songs. That’s kind of what I’m drawn to. I don’t know why. I’ve just always done a song or two like that on every record I’ve done. I love the feel of it, and I think that’s why I like singing that kind of stuff, but I also love the R&B stuff,” Miller says, then returning to the song he’d discussed earlier, “and actually, there’s a line in that ‘When It Comes to You’ that Julie wrote — that ‘Stick a feather in my hat / And call it matrimony’ - when she wrote that, that’s when I decided to put the lyrics on the record,” he laughs. “They weren’t going to be in there until that line came along.”

Adding to the musical landscape is a Cajun tune, “Oh Fait Petie D’amour” (“Love Have Mercy on Me”).

“That’s a song of Julie’s. I didn’t know about that French stuff — matter of fact, we were kind of looking around, and neither one of us speak it. It was funny,” Miller says. “She wrote the song and felt that every line should end with a French line, and we had a few ideas and called up our friend Ann Savoy And ran the idea we had by her — ‘La Petit Fillet’, I think is what we were saying. She just laughed so hard because that’s ‘My Pretty Little Steak’,” he laughs, “so I think we were trying to say ‘My Petit Fille’, but we didn’t know, and she helped us out and then Joel Sonnier. Julie wanted to say, ‘Love Have Mercy on Me’, and that’s how he translated it. Later on we found out what the words more literally mean is ‘love has made me pitiful’, but I think that’s even better.”

Midnight and Lonesome comes to a stunning close with “Quecreek”, a mining song in the folk tradition about the nine miners rescued in Quecreek, Pennsylvania in July 2002.

Miller remembers, “The record was done — I think I had another song in there in the last position — and the record was late being turned in. The morning of the day that the miners were rescued, and it was just such a miraculous thing, and we were watching it. It was just on all the news channels, and it had been a pretty rough year newswise, just a tough year. And having that happen, and it was a real miraculous rescue. I mean, they were drilling when that huge drillbit broke; they were so desperate and thought, Well, this is it, and when in reality if they’d have kept drilling, they would have hit water, and they all would have drowned. There were miracles like that that kept happening in there.”

He continues, “Anyway, I woke up the next morning, and on my mixing board after I think I’ve finished the record, there’s a song on my mixing board, and Julie had written a song, and I thought, Yeah, this feels right. So a couple of hours later, we just recorded it like that in the studio and stuck it on the end of the record.”

“Quecreek” is much like “Rachel”, a song based on the violence at Columbine High School, which appeared on Julie’s Broken Things album.

“When something really touches [Julie] and moves her,” Miller says, “that kind of song comes out, and I really want to put something like that, something that’s real — I like putting something like that on there.”

Of course, this wouldn’t really be a story about Buddy and Julie Miller without the latest news on Julie’s cats. As Buddy explains, they’re another part of the living room.

“They’re the one thing that can be counted on to show up on every record. I mean, you can probably hear it on every record. Somewhere there’s a cat meowing, somewhere. They’re all nuts. We have more cats than we really should have — but we’re down to seven. Emmylou has taken two,” he laughs. “We still have more cats than she does, but she’s got two of ours now.”

So what’s next for the Millers?

“We’re going to be touring until mid-November, and then we’re just working on songs,” Buddy says. “We don’t really know.”

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