Music

Harder Than Moving a Couch: An Interview With Buddy Miller

The Nashville legend has had a dramatic stretch (including a trip to the Grammys and another to the hospital). He tells PopMatters what's really a challenge.


Buddy and Julie Miller

Written in Chalk

Label: New West
US Release Date: 2009-03-03
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Buddy Miller just had triple bypass surgery. The Internet is not “abuzz” with the story but it is out there. Despite having recorded with nearly every substantial artist of his time and written a few near perfect records himself, few people could pick Buddy out of a crowd. We had just spent an hour on the phone together a few days before. At the time Miller said he was having trouble getting his heater fixed. This unnerved me for some reason.

To his credit, he seems unfazed when it causes him to miss my call and takes it upon himself to ring me up when he gets free. This is made even more remarkable when one realizes that Miller had to go through a switchboard to reach me. The idea of Miller’s southern husk of a voice asking for my extension brings me a smile.

Buddy Miller is a guitar legend. When you work in, live in, drive through, or mention Nashville, his ability to make a guitar do anything is a topic that's bound to be broached. Want to talk about songwriting and you will hear another Miller’s name. Despite having a formidable writing career, Buddy’s pen seems to willingly take a backseat to his wife Julie’s. Talk to those who have worked with her and you get the impression that she divines songs more than she writes them. Even Buddy claims to have “fished near finished songs out of her trash basket and used them”.

Given that these two subjects are married, it is easy to envision a massive collection of Buddy and Julie Miller records. But there aren’t many. There are two. This is not to overlook the fact that any Buddy Miller record is a Julie Miller record and vice versa, but in technical terms there are two. The latest is titled Written in Chalk and was released by New West. It is just the sort of record you would expect from two people who seem in no hurry to release material. It is stitched together with wonderful southern gospel themes and guitars that sound how guitars are supposed to. At times it is honky tonk. At other times it is a eulogy. It’s the perfect record for a listening party with Johnny Cash, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Flannery O’Connor, and a touch or two of your grandparents. In other words, it is perfect.

If the output of these life partners is always such high quality, why is there so little of it? This is part of my mission in this phone conversation. I am hoping that Buddy will share the secret. Some have suggested that it is Julie’s health that slows these records down. Years ago Julie was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. The disease can be debilitating. Surely it is a struggle, but one listen to her on Written in Chalk tells you that she was full strength during this recording. Her southern soprano is all Loretta Lynne and lioness roars. There is nothing frail in her performance.

Buddy and Julie have a history that goes far beyond music. After years in Los Angeles, New York, and Austin, they long ago had come to be reliant on one another. Julie abandoned Buddy in New York once to join a Christian group that was all-consuming. To read Buddy’s account of it, it was not like she ever left, for good at least. He took care to keep in touch and when it became necessary, he went and got her. Time has a way of twisting relationships with words. Fifteen years ago and without their musical identity and connection, they may have been called co-dependent. All they knew was that when one wasn’t there, it did not seem right. Buddy’s connections with Jim Lauderdale and others kept him busy when they arrived in Austin. Julie got a record deal and life moved forward. While both had established themselves as artists, Buddy as a capable sideman and Julie as a singer, the two had not recorded together. That finally led to 2001’s Buddy and Julie Miller record. Hightone records released Love Snuck Up in 2004. That same year Buddy released the immediate classic Universal United House of Prayer. The two had moved to Nashville and seemed settled and happy, but it would be five long years before they released another record together.

I was suspicious that it was the work that Miller did with everyone else. As was previously mentioned, he plays a lot. The trip to the Grammys took him off his Three Girls and their Buddy tour. Those shows feature Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, and Patty Griffin, with Buddy as accompaniment. In fact the Grammys were an indulgence that, when he talks about, Buddy sounds thankful for but still a distraction.

“It was great but I flew all day. Then I got in for rehearsal. I got into the hallway and was carrying my guitar and I could hear music coming through the walls. The door opened and Paul McCartney was playing ‘I Saw Her Standing There'. That was pretty cool. In fact his rehearsal was better. And then I got a hug from Smokey Robinson, but I’m pretty sure he thought I was someone else.”

In addition to the tour dates with some of America’s greatest songwriters, Buddy is producing. He reveals that the recording of the next Patty Griffin record was largely done in an “Egyptian revival style” church. The phone connection gets a little choppy here but I am near certain he said the word “sarcophogaus”. Regardless, he gave assurances than the process was filmed so we will all eventually know if entombed bodies played any part in Patty Griffin's record scheduled for release this year.

All of this responsibility provides a likely explanation for not doing more of your own work but yet again Buddy discounts my take saying, "I’m not a sit down at a certain time and write kind of guy. It is more like allowing the channel to be open wherever you are. It’s about going with your instincts, not manufacturing.”

When asked if that requires a certain fearlessness, he responds the way someone who is fearless would, with a prolonged pause. “It just has to be something you want to get into,” he says and moves on.

Perhaps the title of the new release offers insight into the decisions Buddy and Julie have made to limit their official shared output. I suggest that Written in Chalk is an odd choice for a record being released in a world that seems to have made chalk obsolete. When chalk was in widespread use, it suggested something temporal, easy to erase. Buddy confirms that the title is reference to the “nature of relationships”. Buddy and Julie have written a record that can be courtly, romantic, challenging, and comforting. They have written a record about how to live within a relationship.

The album's opening track, counted in, sings, “Take me back when times were hard but we didn’t know it." Sung by both Buddy and Julie, the song is actually a tribute to Julie’s mother. When Julie joins in to sing, there is an authenticity to what in other hands might seem like overused southern imagery, the notion of plowing the week away and singing on Sundays. When Buddy and Julie Miller sing about these things, you believe them. The descriptions are metaphors for an era of simplicity. Given Julie’s health, Buddy’s schedule, etc., it also serves as an apt metaphor for the situation that the Millers find themselves in now. Partners in music for over 20 years now, very little is likely to come easy. Perhaps the answer is found more overtly in “Gasoline and Matches”, where the two trade verses with a blues guitar attempting to keep the distance between the combustibles.

Not all of the songs are about Buddy and Julie on Written in Chalk, but they are all about taking stock of the lives that people live -- the loves that people have lost, and the cost of being human. Each of these is delivered masterfully in a way that only Buddy and Julie Miller could have done.

When I ask him outright why the two of them work together this way so infrequently, Buddy laughs a little and says, “It’s tough to make something like this with someone you live with? It’s difficult. I mean, it can be difficult to try to move a couch. This is a lot harder.”

Forty minutes into the discussion, I feel a little silly for not having been more direct. In a world where relationships are perceived as “written in chalk”, people who love one another have to do everything that they can to stay on the board. In the end, there won’t be a thousand Buddy and Julie Miller records but there will be a Buddy and Julie Miller. And you get the feeling that is the most important fact for them both.

Postscript

Following Miller's heart surgery, New West sent us this message:

"Following his show in Baltimore, Buddy Miller was not feeling well. After consulting doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital, tests revealed some heart blockage. It was determined that surgery was needed right away. He is now out of the hospital and recovering well. Buddy and his family would like to thank all for their well wishes and prayers."

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