Buddy & Julie Miller Are Back In the Throes, But That’s Right Where They Should Be

The spousal duo discuss their third album together in less than five years.

Music Features Buddy & Julie Miller
Buddy & Julie Miller Are Back In the Throes, But That’s Right Where They Should Be

I’ve been saved, I’ve been cast aside
I’ve been naked on stage with nowhere to hide
But I laugh the loudest and it rolls right off my back
Got a confidence game, got a real good act
“I’ve Been Around”

Julie Miller remembers the exact moment, the exact spot. Riding with her now-husband-of-forty-years, roots producer/songwriter/artist/guitarist Buddy in the van to a gig in upstate New York from their place in NYC, she saw the sign. When they parked to unload, Julie leapt out, ran back down the road to the “Conference of the Holy Spirit” posterboard shoved into a hillside.

It pointed the way to a church. Empty, save for an older man who asked, “Are you Sister Ruth?,” the wild-eyed young rocker “blurted out my story.” Taking her travails in, when she finished, he asked, “Do you want to walk to the altar to pray?”

Exhaling now, the woman, whose songs have been recorded by Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin, Linda Ronstadt, Miranda Lambert, Joe Bonamassa, Emmylou Harris, and Lee Ann Womack, marvels. Quietly, she remembers, “I was in so much turmoil, and so destructive, flinging myself into danger…”

She’d felt the reckoning coming.

“I had such an epiphany with Jesus when I was 23. Buddy and I were together, but there was this churning. I heard Bob Dylan’s Infidels, Slow Train Comin’…I put them on, and it was like Jesus was in the room with me. Right. There.”

If this sounds like another show-biz revival wrought convenient to sell an album, the slight woman with the cracked voice and ongoing battle with intense neuropathy realizes the Lord works in mysterious ways. In The Throes, her third album with her husband in less than five years, contains the slow-rolling “Don’t Make Her Cry,” all B-3 clouds strung with languid guitar twists. The song draws from a conversation Fairfield Four founder Reverend Sam McCrary had with Dylan about his daughter Regina, who was touring with him in the early ‘80s. Years later, Regina McCrary and Dylan started the song—and Dylan reached out to Buddy to finish it.

“I didn’t hear about the song until Regina showed up at the house with it,” Julie remembers. “Buddy didn’t want to do it, and that’s how I got involved. It was such an honor and a blessing; I couldn’t believe God let me live long enough to write a song with Bob Dylan… Even though I’d never written a song with someone I’d never spoken to before.”

Childlike luminosity glows as Julie Miller rolls the circle of finding her faith over, creating an almost divine reckoning of culpability with an artist who sparked the beginning of her own discovery. Miracles beyond winning lottery tickets have a way of piling up around her. Just as quickly, she changes gears. Thinking about Regina’s father, Julie gets as gritty and real as she is whimsical. “He was a strong, deep person, and I feel like I knew (Rev. McCrary) through the sisters. Knowing the family, their father didn’t give a hoot who Bob Dylan was. He just wanted to protect his daughter. And I get it.”

Buddy talks about sending the song back through the transom, waiting to hear if they were good to include it on their latest hushed, then churning, then twanging excavation of faith, heartache and the human spirit. Having anchored Robert Plant’s Band of Joy with Patty Griffin, as well as serving as musical director for good friends Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris at key points in their careers, he’s not prone to puffing up—or making assumptions.

Buddy grew up steeped in music: attending Woodstock a couple weeks after the Culpepper Bluegrass Festival, taking guitar lessons from Mike Seeger and his wife Marge as a young teen and being part of seminal scenes in New York City, Austin and Los Angeles before landing in Nashville. Having been in the eye of those musical storms, he recognizes the journey.

“I saw the Dead so many times, I fell off the bus in ’72, ’73 when country took over and Dolly and Porter became the thing,” he concedes sitting in front of the board outside his kitchen. “The reality is: there’s the magic, and then there’s the work.”

Not quite Americana’s Porter and Dolly, there’s definite chemical kismet when Buddy and Julie—each a respected artist—come together for projects. With the ebb and flow of lives entangled, they bring a charge to songs of hurt, desire, desperation and celebration that deliver a grittiness reflective of actual living.

“For Julie and I, it seems we’re just whirling around, playing around with something,” Buddy says. “Then it turns into something unexpected. But I’ve learned if you can grab a hold of that little seed, you can find some pretty great stuff.”

“Buddy and I process and function differently,” Julie continues. “We see things differently, too. He’s very much ‘how to do it.’ I’m Miss Feel-It-And-Lets-Find-A-Lost-Dog. Somewhere in there, it falls into place. He goes there with me in the process; he’s there when the baby’s born.”

Having delivered 2019’s roots feast Breakdown on 20th Ave. South, then 2020’s pandemic-grounded Lockdown Songs, the Millers weren’t intending to make an album at all. But as Buddy’s 60s turned 70, then 71, road work seemed too steep a toll as the pair dealt with aging parents. Priorities weren’t new albums.

A gospel project with old friends Victoria Williams, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams seemed fun. It fell apart over concern about travel given Victoria’s ongoing M.S. health battles. But in looking at songs for that project, boxes of tapes and voice memos of “Julie fragments” started circling both songwriters’ consciousness.

Moody, evocative, In the Throes is as much a vibe as a patchwork of how raw we can feel. The whirling Middle Eastern scales of “The Pain Killers Ain’t Workin’” detail Julie’s struggles with pain management, making it literal and metaphorical. The Buddy-sung frustration of “I’ll Never Live It Down” and the lurching carny sideshow tremors of Julie’s “I Been Around” lumbers through a ragged street corner stream of consciousness that suggests Tom Waits’ Mule Variations.

“I was aghast and horrified, but it was so spontaneous and free,” she says of the latter.

“It sounds like a mess,” Buddy admits with a smile, “and I made it sound like more of a mess. Once I found the riff, and it took a while because Julie wants it the way she hears it. We were doing a North Mississippi All-Stars radio show, and she’s like ‘Play this!’ We had a floor tom with a towel over it; she sang it once. But, man…”

That gut-cutting visceralness works on the quieter moments. There’s the tugging, but stoic self-blame of the gentle “Tattooed Tear.” Putting her words in his mouth–even when the two form perfect sung together harmony–is almost jarring; it’s a vulnerability most men can’t access.

“Sometimes when he’s singing the songs for the first time, I, okay, kinda laugh inside,” she confesses. “It’s weird to him singing my emotional words. He’s normally not that open and emotionally there.”

“We didn’t talk a lot about the songs,” Buddy admits later, Americana Music Awards house band charts spread across his recording console. “I just internalized them. It’s very exposed. Singing what I’m singing about, our relationship is very exposed. So, a lot of it is unspoken. It’s emotional, but it’s tough and good, and tough is good.”

Mind you, this isn’t a he-said, she-said X-ray of a marriage. It includes people Julie’s known, things that inspired her. It offers redemption in the shimmering twin-harmonied “Nicolo,” an elegant redux of her John Lewis deliverance elegy “The Last Bridge You Will Cross” and the Dust Bowl feeling “We’re Leavin,’” originally pegged to the gospel project that featured Campbell and Teresa Williams.

“This isn’t all from me to him,” Julie says. “A lot of songs are about other people, long in the past. Relationships that other people, our friends had. You know, Robert Plant brought one of the records to Buddy, the one with ‘Everything Is Your Fault’ on it, and he said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ So, that’s a good thing to remember.”

Buddy Miller laughs, too, at the story. He doesn’t mind. He loves that the songs have a way of puncturing people’s hearts and heads. He knew this album could be more political, but it didn’t feel right. Will there be another record of that stuff soon? He doesn’t know.

“I don’t look at it like ‘let’s save this for the next record…’,” explains the man who survived open-heart surgery while on tour in 2009. “I hope we do something else, but it’s always about what’s right in the moment. What this record became is what it was supposed to be. I’m okay with that. Honestly, I make every record as if they’re the last record I’m going to make.”

Watch Buddy Miller perform with Jim Lauderdale at the Paste Party in Austin 2013 below.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin