Buddy and Julie Miller's partnership is the result of a mutual search for spiritual meaning arrived at from different directions. While Buddy's journey from street musician to alt-country star was fairly routine, Julie -- a former contemporary Christian artist -- endured a series of trials and tragedies that shaped her life.
Yet both have managed to weather the transitions with their integrity and beliefs intact. And in the process, they've hit on a musical style that stems from a unique combination of blue-eyed soul, country charm and rock energy.
The Millers' humility belies their importance to the music scene. Not only have they managed to carve out a fairly successful place in the Nashville industry, they have done so on their own terms. With five solo releases between them, they've only just released their first duet album, Buddy & Julie Miller. But calling it the pair's first "duet" album is somewhat deceiving, since the two have technically collaborated on all their other releases. With its acoustic folk underpinnings and edgy electric shadings, Buddy & Julie Miller's 11 tracks play up the duo's soulful, roughhewn harmonies and Julie's knack for melodies that resonate.
"We tried to meet in the middle on this one," Buddy says. "But it leans a bit more on Julie's side."
For Buddy, the difference between Buddy & Julie Miller and the couple's other five albums is simple. "It has a picture of both of us on the cover, and we both play or sing on every song," quips Buddy, who made the album with his wife in their home studio using Pro Tools. "We recorded this one on my days off from the tours (with Emmylou Harris' Spyboy band), and it drove me nuts. Julie was at home writing a lot, and when I got there, she usually had a few new songs for us to work on."
One of the most creative and innovative guitarists around, Buddy has an intensely emotional vocal style that's as rugged as it is captivating. A professional musician since his teenage years in Ohio, Buddy lived and worked in Austin, Texas -- where he met Julie -- and several other cities before settling in Nashville. And while he's happy talking about music, he's extremely humble and somewhat reticent to discuss his personal faith.
"It doesn't affect the way I play guitar," he says. "And as far as writing, well, I try to keep it simple and from the heart."
When asked about the obvious spiritual leanings of the songs on his 1995 solo debut, Man on the Moon, Buddy laughs, "Well, we have redone most of the good ones." He then quickly defers the issue of spirituality to his wife: "That's more of Julie's area. She can tell you more about that, since she writes the words -- and that's where the message is."
Growing up in the fertile Austin music scene proved to be both a sanctuary and a maelstrom for Julie, as she struggled to cope after a childhood marred by unspeakable abuse and surrounded by "Christian" hypocrisy. She was unsuccessful at holding herself together, relying increasingly on alcohol and drugs to project the image of the "tough barroom chick" on stage. In The Julie Miller Story, a 1997 video documentary produced for Dutch television, she describes in detail how she descended into brokenness, surviving sexual assault, a suicide attempt and several psychiatric hospitalizations as a young adult.
After becoming a Christian in the early '80s -- an event she describes simply as "whammo!" -- she threw herself headlong into her new spiritual commitment. "Music had been my god," she says. "I decided to give everything to him, and asked myself, 'What does God want me to do?'"
At first, Julie was worried that she'd "have to go through a life of misery for God." Then she realized that "singing in a non-church situation is more comfortable for me. I started out in bars. God came to me in a bar."
Blessed with an irresistibly warm and exuberant nature, Julie's brand of spirituality is based on down-to-earth integrity. "I'd rather be in a whorehouse than a church full of hypocrites," she says. "I mean it!"
Julie spent several years writing, recording and performing contemporary Christian music, making three records for the Myrrh label, all of which are out of print. But eventually, the unwritten rules of the genre -- e.g., Christian lyrics only -- became too confining.
Though Buddy collaborated with Julie on these recordings, he continues to be puzzled about the nature of the contemporary Christian music business. "Julie and I are coming from a very different place," he says. "I just don't understand why they have to be the way they are."
Julie's unintentional liberation is most clearly heard on her 1997 HighTone Records debut, Blue Pony. That was followed by 1999's Broken Things, where her songwriting emerged as a vital commodity. Her tunes have since been covered by Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Scott and Lee Ann Womack.
"My songs are literal," Julie says. For proof, look no further than "Broken Things": "You can have my heart, though it isn't new," she sings. "It's been used and broken and only comes in blue. It's been down a long road and got dirty on the way. If I give it to you, will you make it clean and wash the shame away?"
Like many of Julie's songs, "Broken Things" has multiple interpretations. Though the message is inherently spiritual, it's presented in a way that is meaningful to most listeners, perhaps because the songwriting is so much in touch with the human experience.
"People who've felt pain in their lives are sensitive to my songs," Julie says. "It comes from being broken in pieces."
Of all the tracks on Buddy & Julie Miller, "You Make My Heart Beat too Fast" is one of the best examples of her versatility. A love song to Buddy, it is remarkable for its playful take on sexual attraction.
"Sex is so misused in this world," Julie says. "The song wasn't intentional. It just wrote itself as I was putting on my makeup. We played it first with real finesse, and then the 'Wild Thing' guitar thing came along." Finding a comfortable balance between the sacred and the profane has been a lifelong goal for the Millers. Julie sums up their faith this way:
"He sets me free to love instead of just following the rules -- to have a 'relationship' with God. If you just follow the rules, you don't have to have a relationship. But if you have a relationship, you have to listen."
Buddy and Julie Miller play Sat, Jan. 12, at the Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. Steve Forbert opens. Show time is 8:30 p.m. $15. 404-521-1786. www.variety-playhouse.com.
*Christ, Lord sorry
"Punk" style like this seems like it is the polar opposite of punk. Bradford Cox…
They're kind of starting to look like a joke of themselves. Song's good though.
All 80s movies want you...
Their show with Chris, Lord about 3 years at the Unicorn was the best.