FOREWORD: It’s Miller time! Multi-faceted Country-folk artist, Buddy Miller, has played behind several first-rate modern traditionalists, written several top notch Western-styled tunes (covered by a wide range of artists), and occasionally hoisted up a few solo records. He’s also done a few recordings with his wife, Julie. In fact, ‘09s heartfelt Written In Chalk offers the same down home rural sensibility as Buddy & Julie Miller’s self-titled ’01 debut. I got to speak to the reluctant icon in ’04 in support of what may be his finest album to date, United Universal House Of Prayer. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
While cheap, tawdry major label Country-pop throwaways rule Nashville radio these days, superior singer-songwriter, ace guitarist, and sought-after sideman Buddy Miller keeps delivering versatile self-produced solo projects gathering traditional Appalachian folk, brawny honky tonk, authenticated bluegrass, hootenanny shuffles, and breezy Americana without succumbing to slick homogenization. Moreover, the earthy Ohio-born, Princeton-raised bard spent eight years leading Emmylou Harris’ road band, had short stints with first-rate progressive Country icons Jim Lauderdale and Steve Earle, and alongside wife Julie, a devout Christian, made one sensational secular duo album thus far.
Miller’s early influences, West Coast psychedelia, soul, and folk-blues, indirectly reflect the wide-ranging material he so effortlessly combines.
“Radio in the ‘60s was just incredible. You heard everything. I loved it all. I got into playing guitar because I loved the freedom of that San Francisco hippie scene,” he recalls.
Out in South Pasadena, California, in the ‘80s, the Miller’s struggled paying rent, selling off gear to make ends meet before re-locating to cheaper confines. By the time they hit Nashville, L.A.-based Hightone Records fortuitously inquired Buddy about laying down tracks.
“I was Jim Lauderdale’s lead guitarist out West. But I thought if we move to Nashville, I could buy a house for the price of Los Angeles rent. Within months, Hightone asked if I had any songs. I said ‘Sure.’ But I didn’t. I only had song pieces.” Nevertheless, he concedes, “Nearly every song on that (’95) debut, Your Love and Other Lies, has been covered, by artists such as Brooks & Dunn and Dixie Chicks. It’s basic, but sweet. Then, I’d just joined Emmylou’s Spyboy band when we recorded (‘97s) Poison Love between tours. Emmy and the guys set up in the living room and she added rhythm guitar.”
Besides befriending, then working with, local Nashville cats Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda Williams, and Guy Clark, Miller’s done sessions with nasally C & W guitarist Jimmie Dale Gilmore, acid-Jazz diva N’Dea Davenport, and chirp-y voiced Creekdippers pal Victoria Williams. He even found time in ’04 to form roots-based touring outfit Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue with female peers Gillian Welch, Patti Griffin, and Emmylou Harris.
The now gray-haired troubadour explains, “Patty had a date at the Ryman Auditorium that Julie and I opened. Emmy came out and sang with Patty. Then, we were all together so it felt so right we took it on the road and continue having a blast.”
Meeting in Austin during 1976, Buddy and Julie Miller lived in New York City by ’80, got married, moved cross-country, settled down outside Nashville in ’93 at an old Victorian house, and built a four-room home studio, Dogtown Recording. Julie’s solo ’97 disc, Blue Pony, may’ve drawn lyrical stimulus from battles with depression and rheumatic disorder. Her flinty tear-stained honeyed twang uplifts the pair’s fervency quota on both solo and duo endeavors.
Miller divulges, “I love duet singing. The difference, to me, has to do with the melody and how the song feels. On Julie’s albums, they take a turn for the rock side. Mine are more basic Country-Blues. She grew up in Texas with so much Country she doesn’t like to hear it as often. There’s less fiddle going on with her records.”
Quickly, Miller established himself as one of Tennessee’s most legitimate songwriters, finding a modicum of success offering bigger stars sundry compositions. Meanwhile, his recording career kept growing at a relatively moderate pace.
More anguished than its sterling predecessors, ‘99s efficient Cruel Moon set the stage for further recognition. A few years hence, heralded ’02 gem, Midnight And Lonesome, would gain better critical notice. Half-written by spouse Julie, its masterful malleability allowed the Everly Brothers reverberating strut “The Price Of Love,” Jesse Winchester’s steel-laced sad road ode “A Showman’s Life” (a heartfelt Emmylou duet), and Percy Mayfield’s hushed ballad “Please Send Me Someone To Love” to coexist peacefully next to vibrant originals. Sly, slick, wickedly desirous come-on “When It Comes To You” makes great use of burbled optigan (a pipe organ-like instrument Jazz keyboardists Jimmy Smith and Walter Wanderly would’ve appreciated).
Between these serpentine pillars, ‘01s monumental Buddy & Julie Miller seized the moment perfectly, mingling gleamed countrypolitan charmer “Little Darlin” with swampy deluge “Dirty Water,” political folkie Bruce Utah Phillips’ sensitive “Rock Salt And Nails,” Dylan’s fiddle-addled barroom “Wallflower,” and a delectably streamlined version of Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance.”
But a string of misfortune and political uncertainty weighed heavy on Miller’s mind. On ‘04s therapeutic Universal United House Of Prayer, Miller deals with untimely death and Gulf War blues while seeking deliverance from the almighty through revelatory testimonials, an underlying theme previous releases merely touched upon. Gospel singers Regina and Ann Mc Crary (Fairfield Four founder Sam Mc Crary’s daughters) add reverential medication to these devotional lamentations.
Dylan’s ’63 protest anthem “With God On Our Side” gets an elongated, slowly sweltering treatment and Louvin Brothers’ pious veneration “There’s A Higher Power” receives a durable acoustic-fiddle reprise. The Miller’s own piano-based “Shelter Me,” which compares favorably to Leon Russell’s Asylum Choir, and unhurried accordion-draped “Wide River To Cross” yearn for the Lord’s mercy in these troubled times.
“Religion’s always been a big part of my life. Dylan’s tune, “With God On Our Side,” seemingly uses God as an excuse for bad deeds and may be more relevant today,” he claims, citing worldly hostilities. “In the past few years, the Iraqi War started and my wife’s brother died. He was in a crippling motorcycle accident that left him partially paralyzed, then 20 years later, was struck by lightning in the same spot he got injured. Those things led me to believe there were dots to connect. The whole world situation left me with lots of questions. I don’t have answers, but politics and spirituality overtook me. Christian Contemporary artist Mark Heard died, but was a friend of mine. Like Julie, Mark wrote about things too heavy to be tied in a neat little box with a bow on top. That’s why I love starting the disc with one of his songs, “Worry Too Much.” He wrote that when the first Gulf War broke out. I engineered that record. It seemed appropriate.”
Miller admits enjoying the spontaneity attained by letting songs unfold and reveal themselves in the studio instead of overindulging ahead of schedule. However, that changed with Universal United House Of Prayer, a staggeringly prophetic powerhouse strengthened by godly worship.
“I wanted to make half the album with the Mc Crary’s and the other with Matraca Berg’s aunts, wonderful singers with a completely unique sound. But I had such a good time with Regina and Ann I never got to the other half. So I’ll save that for the next record.”
In the meantime, the Miller’s plan to begin work again on Julie’s new record, which was temporarily halted whilst her brother passed away.
“The songs are different, but it remains to be seen what happens. She directs things and she’s got some real ideas,” he concludes.