Music: Keeping Up With The Millers

Husband-and-wife duo Buddy and Julie Miller make Insurgent Country music with heart

Buddy Miller

When Buddy and Julie Miller first met, their relationship didn't get off to an auspicious start.

Buddy was a struggling young Country guitarist in Austin, Texas, and Julie was a young but gifted singer in a band for which he was auditioning. Despite his best efforts, she told the rest of her bandmates not to hire him.

"I was less than pleased, because I had taken a liking to her," Buddy says, remembering with a laugh. "But in the long run things worked out, I would say. We have been married for 17 years, and it has been a fruitful relationship, both professionally and personally."

Fans of the Millers will have the chance to see one of the foremost husband-and-wife teams in the burgeoning field of "insurgent" Country music when they play Southgate House Friday with R.B. Morris as the opening performer.

Like most musicians, both Buddy and Julie paid their dues coming up through the ranks of the music business. They share similar anecdotes — Julie made her professional debut at age 16 as "the cute little chick singer in the band," while Buddy played his first gig at age 15 in "some little dive a teen-age boy had no business being in."

Buddy, who was born in Fairborn, TX, but was an "Air Force brat" who moved often, cites musical influences as seemingly disparate as Jimi Hendrix and Bluegrass forefather Ralph Stanley.

"When I heard Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton singing in their two-part harmony, that just sealed it for me," Buddy recalls. "I knew right then that I wanted to be a musician."

Julie was born in Waxahachie, Texas, but moved with her parents to the more musically vibrant community of Austin at the age of 7.

"I grew up listening to Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Muddy Waters," she says. "My mom had a great record collection. I just knew that singing was in my blood and was what I wanted to do with my life."

The Millers spent several years as backup musicians for other Country performers, living in New York, Los Angeles and many points in between before making the move seemingly requisite for all Country musicians — they went to Nashville in 1993.

While Buddy acknowledges disdain for some Country music played on the radio today, he says Nashville also inspires musicians.

"A lot of garbage comes out of Nashville," he says. "But then, a lot of garbage comes out of New York, Los Angeles and recording studios everywhere in between. This is still the epicenter of Country music, its heart, and there are lots of very vital and very good musicians here. I prefer to focus on them."

Buddy soon signed a record deal with Hightone Records and made his label debut with 1995's Your Love and Other Lies. Julie co-wrote and sang on three of the songs. Critical praise abounded for the album, and Julie recorded a Hightone release of her own, 1997's Blue Pony.

Both were in great demand. Julie wrote songs for Country legend Emmylou Harris, while Buddy toured with Harris and with Steve Earle's El Corazon Tour. Both joined Victoria Williams and Jim Lauderdale as part of The Rolling Creek Dippers, an all-star ensemble that performed throughout Europe.

Each of the Millers recorded a 1999 album to huge critical acclaim: Julie's Broken Things came out in August, while Buddy's Cruel Moon hit stores in September.

The albums display the artists' versatility. Buddy's opening track, the bitter ballad "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger," grabs the listener with a scathing message for a departed lover. With Julie often singing in the background, Buddy takes his music down various avenues, including "Somewhere Trouble Don't Go," a down and dirty Cajun boogie, and "In Memory of My Heart," a paean to his Bluegrass roots.

"When I record an album, I don't do it with too many preconceived notions," Buddy says. "I don't think, 'Let's do a Country song here, let's do a Blues tune here.' I just take an album the direction it seems to want to go. Everyone tells me it is such a great album, but I guess I am my own worst critic."

Julie's voice takes center stage on "Broken Things." At various times, her voice exudes the grittiness of Sheryl Crow, the poignancy and vulnerability of Shawn Colvin or an inflection of Stevie Nicks' vibrato. Her songs touch on deep feelings of inner turmoil, loss and longing. "Orphan Train" entreats those in agony and strife to come together: "Come you abandoned, you forsaken, friendless and alone/Come refugees left homesick for some place you've never known/Here paupers, princes, criminals and saints are all the same/No less than God's beloved child aboard this train." "Two Soldiers" tells the story of two young men away at war and the death and fear they face at every turn.

Earlier this month, the Millers joined Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin for a special acoustic edition of PBS' music series Austin City Limits. Buddy called it "truly an honor to collaborate with such a special group of musicians."

Later this year, they plan to fully collaborate on an album due out this fall for Hightone. While they have differing opinions on what material to put on the album, both are enthusiastic about the project.

"If it was all up to me, we would do more songs like 'Somewhere Trouble Don't Go'," Julie says. "But I think Buddy may want to do some different things. But this will be a great opportunity to work together at an even greater level than we have in the past."

BUDDY AND JULIE MILLER perform Friday at Southgate House.

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