Buddy and Julie Miller both like to laugh. A lot.
Usually, it’s with each other (or, occasionally, at each other). But even when I speak with both halves of the Americana power couple individually, it’s like someone uncorked a canister of nitrous oxide. Julie’s giggles are unceasing. Buddy’s output is more of a quiet chuckle.
“We’ve had plenty of troubles and arguments and fights,” Julie says during a recent call. “But we always know that we are supposed to be together, and we laugh at each other every day. We’re just made for each other.”
Nearing the four-decade mark of their marriage, the Millers remain devoted life partners. But they’ve walked an often rocky road when it comes to their working relationship, which in the ’90s was sort of a precursor to couples like Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires—a country/roots husband/wife duo who most always appear on each other’s albums—but has been stalled for the last decade. Julie’s health problems and Buddy’s busy work schedule prevented the couple—she, a Christian-country soloist turned songwriter and one of Americana’s most singular voices, and he, an in-demand producer, guitar legend and perpetual studio rat—from making music together. Until now: Breakdown on 20th Ave South, their first record since 2009’s Written in Chalk, is out now on New West. And it’s something of a miracle album.
Julie wasn’t exaggerating when she said they’ve weathered their share of struggles. She lost her brother to a freakish lightning accident, and a friend to suicide not long after. Just before Written in Chalk, Buddy had triple bypass surgery. And around the same time, Julie finally put a name to her long-persisting symptoms of pain and fatigue when she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disorder that often prevents her from performing and working. But thanks to Buddy, it wasn’t as much of an issue this time around.
“There’s probably a lot of home studios in Nashville, but this one—everybody seems to love it,” Buddy says during a separate phone call later that day. “But Julie didn’t really want to work with me in it because of everything else I’ve done down here, and it kind of represented the last 10 years of us not doing anything. So she started writing a bunch of songs, and I realized it might be best if we just went upstairs and documented them up there.”
So “up there,” in a tiny upstairs bedroom, surrounded by a few dogs and maybe a cat or two, the Millers built up their Breakdown. Buddy hauled all the equipment up the stairs and set up shop next to the closet, which often meant microphones on the bed and wagging tails in the periphery. Julie says you can even hear “barking and crying” on the recordings (my ear couldn’t trace it). In her words, Buddy was “determined” to make a record once they got going.
“It was just really funny, but it made it possible because I really was too exhausted a lot of the time to even go downstairs and it was all right here, and I could just be as spontaneous as I needed to be, and he was so sweet,” Julie says, emphasizing “sweet” with an adoring volume boost. “I just can’t believe [he] would do something like that. I mean it really was about as nice a thing anybody can do for somebody.”
Buddy did all the production and most of the instrumentation himself, and they recorded the songs Julie wrote whenever she felt up to it (“But that wasn’t very often,” Buddy says). Julie had written upwards of 30 or 40 songs—tunes like the humorous take on marital discourse “Everything is Your Fault,” the empathetic ache for child soldiers on “War Child” and the feisty longing for love on “Spittin’ on Fire”—some of which spoke directly to Julie’s life, pain and her relationship with Buddy, others of which follow no discernible path. As one of Julie’s songwriting friends recently reminded her, she tells me, “They’re just songs, Julie!”
“But we didn’t go into this trying to make a record,” Buddy says. “We were just trying to mend fences and see if we could get along fine between us. That’s kind of how we do it.”
Breakdown on 20th Ave South may be the Millers’ first joint effort in more than 10 years, but it’s been even longer since they’ve actually worked together. Written in Chalk, which won almost every title for which it was nominated at the Americana Awards in 2009, was a collection of older demos “cobbled together” by Buddy. In the years since, Buddy has taken on most any project that came his way. He worked as an executive producer on the TV show Nashville, a job that amounted to essentially producing an album a week, and he produced records both away and at home in that beloved studio for both newer artists like The War and Treaty and contemporaries like Steve Earle and Patty Griffin. Grieving her brother and friend and dealing with physical pain, Julie “withdrew from music, withdrew from everything.” So, really, Breakdown was an act of love more than anything—The Millers were just trying music together again.
“To me it’s much more her record,” Buddy says. “I felt that she deserved that. She has written all these songs. I put my name on it just because I’m pretty involved musically and because I was singing on most of it but really it feels like it would have been her next record, which we started and stopped.”
Buddy is humble—this is a record by Buddy and Julie Miller, after all. But these are Julie’s songs. She says the most important to her is “Thoughts At 2am,” which is about her relationship with God. She shares a writing credit on only one song, “Storm of Kisses,” a title her nephew (now out of college) coined when he was four-years-old. As time went on, it became a metaphor for her brother’s death.
“I think most songwriters tend to have a depressive side at times, and I’m one of those,” Julie says. “I suffer from that from time to time. When I wrote, I mean, all depression left me, all bad feelings. I was so in my element. It was what I was supposed to be doing. There was still a struggle writing the songs as good as I wanted to get them, but I mean, as far as struggling to do the task, it was like I was just enabled to do it, by God. I know it was him.”
They both cited their Christian faith as a key to making it not only through life, but also keeping their marriage strong. Buddy and Julie have known each other since he auditioned for her band in Austin, Texas in the ’70s. They’ve been playing together longer than they’ve been married. Working relations aside, I asked Buddy for his advice for a good marriage.
“Don’t do it,” he says with a laugh. “No I’m kidding. I don’t know. I might leave that to her from my end. It’s more just shut up and listen, and know there’s a lot of truth coming out of there. We’ve been married a really long time, and it’s still learning every day.”
Julie also mentions God and her faith when describing her return to songwriting and her recharged creative abilities.
“I credit God with that ‘cause I don’t know any other reason,” she says. “It was like somebody turned a faucet on and I just had all these songs coming just nonstop. It was like I had a radio station on in my head or something.”
But Buddy says it this way:
“She wakes up with a song in her these days, which is good, and keeps a guitar close by.”
Breakdown on 20th Ave South is out now on New West Records. Watch Buddy Miller perform with Jim Lauderdale during South By Southwest in 2013 below via the Paste vault.