Buddy & Julie Miller Walk the Line

Music Features Buddy & Julie Miller
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On May 15, 2003, Buddy Miller burst into his house near Belmont University in Nashville and told his wife Julie that June Carter Cash had died. They were both stunned by the news, because there had been many reports of Johnny Cash’s health problems and everyone had braced for his imminent death, but no one expected to lose June first. They’d assumed she’d be the rock Johnny leaned on in his last days.

Buddy and Julie weren’t close friends with Johnny and June, but the few times they met left a big impression on the Millers. As a married couple making brilliant—if somewhat unconventional—country music together, it was inevitable that Buddy and Julie would see a bit of themselves in Johnny and June. No sooner had Buddy delivered the news than Julie disappeared.

“There was supposed to be an eclipse that night,” she remembers, “only the weather had changed to clouds and rain. In the midst of this, I just went outside in the rain and looked up into the sky. It was as if all nature was expressing this sorrow of the loss of this amazing, incredibly goodhearted woman. Though Heaven had to be rejoicing to gain her, it was crying for all of us on Earth who had lost her. This song [“June”] just came to me as I was standing there. I went back inside and these verses poured out, more than are on the record.”

“After I told Julie the news, I didn’t see her for the next hour,” Buddy recalls. “When she reemerged she had that song on a cassette. For her, things often just come that fast. She showed me the guitar part, and we recorded it right there in our home studio. She wrote it just to send to John, not for anything but to comfort his heart, like songs can do. That night it felt like Nashville had become a different place, and that song paints a picture of that feeling.”

The Millers always meant to go back and rework the tune, but they never could match the feeling of when the song was first written and recorded. So “June” ended up on the new Buddy & Julie Miller album, Written in Chalk, just as it went down that night in 2003. Over Buddy’s deliberate acoustic-guitar strum, Julie’s late-night whisper tingles eerily, as if she were standing on the border between life and death. Though hers is a sweet soprano, she sings as if she’s transformed into Johnny Cash, sending out a prayer across that boundary line: “I never thought I’d lose you or that you’d go ahead of me.”

“June” is just one of six heartbreaking ballads Julie wrote for the new disc, four that she sings herself and two that she hands over to Buddy. There are few singers or songwriters as emotionally transparent as Julie Miller, and these half-dozen tunes reveal feelings so undefended in their quiet intimacy that it feels as if one has accidentally overheard a conversation that was meant to be private.

But just as Johnny and June could alternate something as quiet and serious as “If I Were a Carpenter” with something as boisterous as “Jackson,” so can Buddy and Julie, for they too were “married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.” You can feel that heat on the new album’s second song, “Gasoline and Matches,” a raucous tune that describes the couple as flammable fuel and a phosphorus-headed stick. Julie wrote the words, but Buddy sings lead: “I feel a spark and the fire catches / You and me are gasoline and matches.”

The Millers have made music together since the late 1970s. And like the Cashes before them, they have combined naked spirituality, roof-raising rock and dark-night-of-the-soul confessionals to forge a visionary direction for American roots music. Their work has endured through overwhelming physical and emotional adversity that, like Johnny and June’s, has struck in unpredictable ways. Shortly before this story went to press, Buddy survived a heart attack—this after years spent caring for Julie, who has endured three decades’ worth of chronic pain and fatigue. Together, the Millers constitute a working model of inspiration in the face of tragedy. Their art endures, and their bond never breaks. Their musical marriage is, in every sense of the word, a collaboration.

Johnny Cash died on September 12, 2003. As sobering as that blow was, at least it was expected. Totally unexpected was the phone call the Millers received less than 24 hours earlier. Jeff Griffin—Julie’s only sibling, the drummer on Buddy’s first Hightone recordings—had been killed by lightning while mowing his mother’s yard in Waxahachie, Texas, south of Dallas.

“My mother called and said, ‘Julie, Jeff’s been struck by lightning, and it’s in the same place he had his accident,’” Julie says. “My brother had been crippled since he was 15 from his motorbike accident; he had even been pronounced D.O.A. at the time. So, as a sister nine years older than him, I felt this motherly feeling for him. He was so endearing—such a cowboy, a really good shot, but such a tender heart. I’ve had losses before, but nothing like this one.”

Julie was halfway through her next solo album, to be called Underneath the Sky, when her mother’s call came. The sessions were suspended immediately. Julie flew to her mother’s house in Ellis County, where the two women tried to make sense of their inexplicable loss. While some of us believe we’ll be reunited in Heaven with our loved ones, our bodies recognize the finality of death and flood our brains with chemical cues that overwhelm theology. Or, as Julie puts it, God knows when it’s the right time for someone to die, but he also sympathizes with the sorrow of the weak mortals left behind.

“At the funeral,” Julie says, “this old church in China Spring, Texas, was overflowing with people we didn’t even know. People came up afterwards and told us how Jeff would take medicine to grandparents who didn’t have cars or drive kids to the doctor. A week later my mother and I fell down on our kitchen floor, weeping and praying, I opened the Bible to the shortest verse, ‘Jesus wept.’ Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, but he wept for Mary and Martha anyway, because he cares that much for our broken hearts. So much of that went into these songs.”

One of those songs, “Ellis County,” dedicated to “Momma,” opens the new album. Out of Brady Blade’s stomping two-step and Larry Campbell’s sawing fiddle comes a hillbilly yearning for a simpler time. It’s a longing not so much for a historical period as a pining for childhood itself. Once again Buddy sings the words Julie has written: “Take me back when all we could afford was laughter / And two mules instead of a tractor… Take me back when I could feel the kiss of my mother / And I had all my sisters and brothers.”

“I’ve read things on how long you’re supposed to grieve,” Julie says, “but let me tell you: If you ever lose someone important, don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve or how long to grieve. When someone is so incredible and precious and they go into your heart like that, it’s like you don’t want to stop grieving. You want to be able to function, of course, but you don’t want less grief as time goes by; you just have to get a bigger heart to carry that grief. As long as you carry them in your heart, they’re still with you.”

Grief wasn’t the only thing slowing Julie down. For one thing, Buddy had been so busy touring and recording with Emmylou Harris and producing albums for Solomon Burke and Jimmie Dale Gilmore that he had less time to work on the Millers’ own records. “Whatever I have to do to pay the bills,” he says, “that’s what I do.” And Julie’s fibromyalgia—a disease of debilitating fatigue, heightened chemical sensitivity and chronic, widespread pain—had gotten so bad she couldn’t tour anymore.

“I’ve been sick throughout our whole music career,” she says. “I started going to doctors back in 1980. It was bad enough to be in pain, but to also have these voices of authority say that what I was experiencing wasn’t really happening, well, it was like being back in denial with my dysfunctional family. Doctors should never say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you’; instead they should say, ‘We don’t know what’s wrong with you.’ No one should be able to graduate from medical school until they listen to this person named Julie Miller talk to them for an hour about how suicidal it feels to hear people say that you aren’t really sick.

“I’ve been in pain from head to toe, literally, for about 25 years, and it gets increasingly worse. And being on the road is the recommended lifestyle for making this condition as bad as it can get. I’ve never told anyone this,” she adds, “but I used to hang onto the microphone as if I were being cool, but it was really to hold myself up. Part of this condition is increasing chemical sensitivity, so I would be incapacitated by the heaters on buses or cleaning chemicals in hotel rooms. But you don’t want to say anything in a rock ’n’ roll van, especially if you’re a girl.”

It’s entirely possible we may never see Julie on stage again, and if you never saw her in action, you’ll never know what a great loss that is. In early 1998, for example, when they were part of Steve Earle’s band, Julie and Buddy opened every show with their own set, usually playing five songs as an acoustic duo and four with Earle’s rhythm section. When the tour came to the Birchmere in Virginia, the Millers looked like the oddest couple. He was short and stocky in a blue-denim work shirt, his already greying ponytail poking out from under a blue baseball cap. She was tall and willowy, her straight brown hair tumbling all the way to her waist over a red lace shirt and a long black skirt. It was as if Joni Mitchell had teamed up with George Jones.

They even sounded like a combination of Mitchell and Jones on the opening duet version of Bob Dylan’s “Wallflower.” Buddy’s piston-pumping guitar chords and barking tenor kept the song moving forward, while Julie’s bell-like soprano wandered in search of the most unusual harmony. “One of us likes to be spontaneous,” she joked with the audience afterward, “sometimes against the other one’s will.” One quickly got the sense that Julie might say anything at any time, as if there were no filter between her mind and her mouth.

“Buddy just got a phone call,” she told the audience, “that Suzy Bogguss put a hold on this song for her new record and Garth Brooks will be singing on it. I’ve got a feeling that it won’t sound like this.” She was right; the Millers’ version of “Take Me Back” teetered on the edge of falling apart, underlining the desperation of the song’s abandoned lover. Yet you could still hear the clarity and structure that made their work so appealing to mainstream-country acts like the Dixie Chicks, Brooks & Dunn and Lee Ann Womack, who’ve also recorded the Millers’ songs.

“I worry sometimes that Nashville is getting away from what made it Music City,” Womack says, “neglecting the music that built this town and becoming a Detroit or Memphis, being remembered for an era rather than a harbor of a great American art form. But then I’m optimistic when I see artists and writers like Buddy and Julie. When we look back, I promise you, we will find that Buddy and Julie played a much more significant role in keeping Music City alive than we are able to see right now.”

While the couple’s own versions might’ve been too weird for radio, their blend of rootsy classicism and bohemian improvisation proved entrancing. The dramatic tension between the two singers always resolved itself in a thrilling unity. And when Julie introduced the title song from her then-upcoming solo album, “Broken Things,” her lack of filter made the lyrics’ emotional surrender sound total and uncalculating.

“You can have my heart,” she sang, “if you don’t mind broken things,” and her fragile, translucent voice lived up to the great demands of those lines, giving warning and begging for help in the same breath. Buddy’s guitar pushed this double-edged proposal forward, as if demanding an answer from the suddenly hushed crowd.

When Broken Things came out that year, it was Julie’s sixth solo album—including the four she’d made as a Christian-pop artist and the two she’d made as a secular Americana artist. Buddy released his third solo album, Cruel Moon, in 1999 and his fourth, Midnight and Lonesome, in 2002. In between was 2001’s Buddy & Julie Miller, the couple’s only duo album before this year. In the 10 years from 1993 through 2002, they released nine albums between them, but in the seven years since they’ve only released two: Buddy’s magnificent 2004 gospel record, Universal United House of Prayer, and this year’s Written in Chalk. Everything slowed down after the phone call from Waxahachie.

These were years that would test any family.Julie seemed paralyzed by grief and illness, even as Buddy’s career took him away from home for weeks at a time, playing with Emmylou Harris or, more recently, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. These were trials that echoed Johnny and June’s tortured “Ring of Fire” courtship—his addiction to pills, the grueling road life, their troubled daughters. It’s no wonder Buddy and Julie looked to the older couple for clues on how to handle life’s challenges.

“I watched them with one eye on how they made that husband-and-wife thing work,” Buddy says. “I know that working together with your spouse can be incredible, but it can be a lot of pressure, too. You think of Johnny and June as these legends, but they were really down-to-earth and funny—which is essential to making a marriage work. One time I got the last seat on a plane to Montreux, and I ended up in the same row as Johnny and June. She was reading a USA Today story about the Rolling Stones and said, ‘Look, John, Keith looks so good.’ And he said in this deadpan voice, ‘He must have had his blood changed again.’”

“After Buddy’s first Hightone record was released,” Julie says, “he got a call asking if we wanted to open for Johnny and June in Dallas. We finished with ‘Don’t Mean Maybe,’ and before I could get all the way off the stage, this giant man came and took me into this most comforting grandpa hug and said, ‘What is that Johnny and June song you just sang?’ It was Johnny.”

In 2004, after Buddy had made Universal United House of Prayer with minimal involvement from Julie, she began to wake from her nightmare. The songs started to pour out again, as many as five a day, and Buddy tried to catch the spillage as best he could. He bought her a mando-guitar—a six-stringed instrument with a mini-guitar neck on a mandolin body—so she’d have an instrument small enough to keep near her at all times. Because the first floor of their home was also their studio, it was easy for him to document her song ideas when he was home. And when he was on the road, he encouraged her to play the songs into a cassette or as a message on his cell phone.

“Our abilities really complement each other,” Julie says. “I’m good at starting things, but when I’m almost done, I have a way of going backwards. Buddy picks up the pieces and somehow in his magic way finishes them. And I’m technically retarded. I don’t even have a good aim; I still miss strings when I’m playing guitar. Buddy runs all this equipment in here; he’s Mr. Knobs. And he can play every instrument with strings. He’s not a big lyric person, so I write most of the lyrics.”

The two had met in Austin in 1976 when Buddy, the new kid in town, went after the guitar slot in Rick Stein's band, which featured a teenaged singer named Julie Griffin. He auditioned by singing Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got To Memphis,” and Julie, who wasn’t fond of hardcore country, recommended that Stein turn him down. (Stein hired him anyway.) Buddy thrived in late-’70s Austin, which was enjoying a golden era of country/bohemian fusion, and in 1979 he joined another band, Partners in Crime, co-led by Griffin and her boyfriend Patterson Barrett. Months later, the recently divorced Buddy suggested the band move to New York, but the newly single Julie was the only one to take him up on the offer.

Jim Lauderdale, then an obscure bluegrass picker from North Carolina, moved to New York soon after Buddy and Julie. He remembers walking into a club called Cody’s in the West Village and getting goose bumps when an unknown, unrecorded group called the Buddy Miller Band played Utah Phillips’ “Rock, Salt and Nails.” Instead of the campfire folk song he’d known, the tune had become a stomping, howling folk-rock anthem—more Bob Dylan & the Hawks than Pete Seeger. Lauderdale knew he had to meet these people, and quickly introduced himself to Buddy, Julie, their steel guitarist Larry Campbell and Karl Himmel, who’d played drums for Neil Young, J.J. Cale and Mother Earth.

“It was a funny time,” Lauderdale says. “We were all struggling to get discovered, but we knew we had a cool, vital roots-music scene happening. John Leventhal was around; so were Floyd Domino, Tony Garnier and Robert Gordon. Hearing Buddy really set a bar for the rest of us. It was like, ‘This is what great sounds like; this is what it sounds like if you’re really good at what you do.’ But if you tried to compliment him, he’d just shrug his shoulders and say, ‘Ah, that’s just something plopped down. I hope I didn’t stink up the place too bad.’

“After several months, I heard Julie had left for Texas and Buddy had brought Shawn Colvin up from Austin to replace Julie in the band. Then I was invited to Buddy’s farewell party, because he was moving to Texas to be with Julie. I said, ‘Wow, he’s sacrificing everything he’s built up here, just because he wants to be with this woman.’ Buddy was a nice guy in those days, but he had an edge to him; he wasn’t a guy you wanted to mess with. At this party, though, he seemed so sweet, so at peace with himself—more like he is now. He was making the right decision, because it was obvious that what was important to him was love.”

“Julie had this heavy-duty religious conversion in New York and just split without her cat or her records,” Buddy explains. “She’s still mad at me for giving away her Rusty Wier albums. I followed her to Texas, and for six years, 1983-89, we got involved in this cult, the Agape Force in Lindale, Texas, where Miranda Lambert’s from. We stopped playing music for the most part. But then Julie started writing these songs and got the opportunity to make some contemporary-Christian records. After taking a break for all those years, it all felt new again, and I just loved doing it.”

Julie’s Christian-pop producers got so frustrated with her stubborn ideas about arrangements, however, that Myrh Records made an unusual offer to her and her husband: “Why don’t you take one of our two-inch, 24-track recorders and make the record in your house?” So they did. That was the beginning of Dogtown Studios, which became the name of Buddy’s home studio wherever he’s lived.

When I asked Julie, in 1999, if I could hear her four Christian albums, she agreed to send the third and fourth but added, “The first two we won’t be sending you. Those were, ‘Listen to Buddy and Julie learning how to make a record.’ Those were, ‘Gee, aren’t these new drum machines cool.’”

“Making records is how we learned to make records,” Buddy adds. “It was trial and error with a lot of errors.”

After making Julie’s first three records in Los Angeles, the couple moved to Nashville in 1993 to make Julie’s final religious record and Buddy’s first Hightone album. They moved because Buddy had been hired as a guitarist and backing singer for Emmylou Harris’ new Spyboy band, and because they could get a mortgage on a house in Tennessee for less than the rent they were paying on a much smaller house in California. Their new house was a former triplex with room enough to live upstairs and turn the downstairs into a studio.

In the CD booklet for Buddy’s Midnight and Lonesome, there’s a photo of the couple’s home: A drum set on an oriental rug in front of a fireplace, an electric guitar laid across an old chair, a microphone propped against another and a lace tablecloth hung over a door. It’s as if your grandmother’s house had been overlaid with all the equipment in a rock ’n’ roll van.

So when Julie started writing again, Buddy had the perfect environment for bringing her ideas to fruition. “I got incapacitated and paralyzed,” she says. “I didn’t realize I was so knocked down, and Buddy just took these songs and somehow incorporated them into this album. I don’t know how he did it. I started to be overwhelmed by grief, so Buddy rescued them from the sea.”

“‘Gasoline and Matches’ is one of those she started singing when I was leaving the room,” Buddy says, “probably so I wouldn’t leave. She grabbed the guitar and started singing, ‘Baby, baby, baby.’ How can you walk away from that?"

There’s no better example of the couple’s entangled personalities than the new album’s title track, “Chalk.” Julie had started sleeping with the mando-guitar Buddy had given her, and one night she woke up, grabbed the instrument and started playing a new song. The chorus came out as a slow country-soul lament: “All I did was help you tell a lie / You never even knew it when I said goodbye / I ran so far and I don’t know why.”

“Those were the lines that started it,” Julie remembers. “It was as if the song were saying something I had wanted to say and never could say while my father was alive. When I left home at 18, it did feel like my father was in denial, as if he were pretending I wasn’t really gone. And I helped that denial because I believed that, whatever you do, you don’t let your family members face the truth; you bear the pain yourself. And years later, when I finally expressed all these things to him, I looked into his eyes and realized it was like asking the man with no arms to hug you.

“For some reason it all came out in Buddy’s voice. It just sounded like something Buddy would sing, the trills at the end of the lines, that country vibe. Maybe it was because Buddy is such a strength to me, such a shelter from the storm. Maybe I had to go to that strong Buddy place to be even able to say it. He’s the parent everyone wishes they had.”

By the spring of 2008, Buddy had assembled enough bits and pieces that he thought he had an album. He wasn’t quite sure what kind of album it was, but he told his label, New West, that they could announce an August release date.

On the Thursday after Memorial Day, I found myself in the conference room of Vector Management on Nashville’s Music Row to interview Buddy while he had a few days off from the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss tour. He was distracted during our conversation and finally admitted why: He wasn’t as close to finishing the album as he’d told the label, and was itching to get home and work on the tracks.

In today’s record business, you have to turn in an album by the end of June if you want it released the same calendar year, and Buddy ultimately missed the deadline. He came close, but every time he got off the road from the summer-long Plant/Krauss tour, Julie had weeks of stored-up thoughts to share, and those had to come first. Written in Chalk would not come out until March 2009, but the delay allowed Buddy to accept help from two friends. Patty Griffin, who’d recorded her new album in a Nashville church this past winter with Buddy as producer, added harmonies to “Chalk” and “Don’t Say Goodbye.” And Robert Plant agreed to sing a duet on “What You Gonna Do Leroy,” an old Lefty Frizzell tune written by Mel Tillis.

“One day Robert said, “If you need me for anything, I’m right here,’ probably not thinking that I’d take him up on it,” Buddy says. “But the next time I went home, I packed up a portable recording setup and took it on the road. When we got to Toronto, I set it up in the band room between dinner and the show, and recorded the song right there. It was the touring band and Gurf Morlix, who happened to be at that show. To understand how much it meant to me, let me just say that I saw the first [U.S.] Led Zeppelin tour from the third row center at the Fillmore East.”

The delay also allowed me to talk to Julie. For months, managers and publicists had insisted she wasn’t talking to anyone. Repeated requests prompted repeated denials, conjuring notions of a woman too shy or damaged to face the world. But during my last interview with Buddy, he said, “Do you want to talk to Julie? She’s right here.” She took the phone, and far from being a reticent recluse, she proved a vivacious motor mouth. One question was all it took for her to go off on a 10-minute stream of consciousness that zoomed from frank confessions to strange tangents. She was as funny and forthcoming as she’d been in the late ’90s, when she was more of a public figure.

But on May 29, 2008, that was all in the future. Buddy and I took a lunch break from our interview and ate the famous cheeseburgers at Rotier’s near Vanderbilt University. He regaled me with stories about Solomon Burke meeting Emmylou Harris’ mother while recording in Buddy’s home studio, and about rehearsing a Percy Sledge song with Bonnie Bramlett in a garbage-strewn alley before a show at SXSW.

Back at Vector Management, we borrowed someone’s office, so Buddy could play me some of the finished tracks. He sat behind a long desk like the music executive he’ll never be and cued up the songs on an expensive stereo system. We listened to “Chalk,” “One Part, Two Part” and a version of Percy Sledge’s “Cover Me” (all sung by Buddy, though the latter was ultimately dropped from the final CD). But when we heard Julie sing “June,” Buddy had another confession.

“I don’t know if it’s a Buddy album or a Julie album or a Buddy & Julie album,” he lamented. “How can it be a Buddy & Julie album when she’s not even on some of the tracks?” I pointed out that Paul McCartney was the only Beatle on “Yesterday,” but it was still released as a Beatles’ song. As long as there’s a shared sensibility throughout, I suggested, it can be a collective project even if every member isn’t on every track. “Hmmm,” Buddy murmured.

Next, Buddy played “Long Time,” another of Julie’s heart-wrenching ballads. The theme of this 6/8 jazz number was the impossibility of healing grief quickly or easily, and there was a scary edge to her whispery cry, “Call the doctor when your body hurts, but when the pain is in your soul, hey man, nothin’ works.” As Kami Lyle’s muted-trumpet solo faded out, Buddy and I sat in silence.

Is it fair to say, I finally asked, that the great reward in working with Julie is her emotional transparency—her total lack of a filter between what she feels and what comes out—and that the great challenge in working with her is the exact same thing?

“Yes,” he said quietly, as if hinting that the payoff was well worth the price.

Is it also fair to say, I pressed, that the great reward and the great challenge of living with her is the same?

He leaned back in the black, padded office chair, stared at the ceiling, his eyes shining with moisture, and didn’t say a thing. He simply nodded.

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