Sign up for newsletter
 

Nothing beats the Buddy (Miller) system

By Brian Baker, November 1999

The last couple of years have been a pretty wild ride for singer/songwriter Buddy Miller and his wife/writing partner Julie Miller, but this has been a particularly momentous year for the couple.

Not only did Buddy manage to place one of his co-writes with Jim Lauderdale on the hugely successful new Dixie Chicks album ("Hole in My Head"), but Buddy and Julie have each recently released albums that could be considered contenders for end of the year accolades. Julie's is the poignant pop-flavored "Broken Things," and Buddy's is the raw-nerved country sizzle of "Cruel Moon," his third album.

Although the dynamic duo has seen a lot of action in the songwriting department, as artists like Garth Brooks, Lee Ann Womack, and Brooks & Dunn have had immense hits with their compositions, Buddy confesses that it would be great to hit one out without the performance help of a marquee name.

"It would sure be nice," Buddy says from his Nashville home of the prospect of tagging his own song into the Top 10. "But I'm real happy with the way things are going. I'm just glad I can be doing this. All the things I get to do are really great."

Among the really great things that Buddy Miller has gotten to do recently include playing guitar with Emmylou Harris' Spyboy band, gigging with Harris and Linda Ronstadt on their recent jaunt, an opening slot on Dave Alvin's recent tour, contributing to Jim Lauderdale's amazing new release, as well as the first solo album from Bob Delevante, writing songs for his first duet album with Julie, and producing the new Jimmie Dale Gilmore album at the couple's home studio in Nashville, affectionately known as Dogtown.

That pace won't let up for awhile.

Miller still has a number of dates to play in support of "Cruel Moon," a process that will continue into early next year. Emmylou Harris will begin work on her next album in early 2000 as well, which Miller will likely help to produce.

And he and Julie will finally begin work on their long-anticipated duet album, an album that has been hinted at by their work together under one or the other's name alone.

One of Buddy's more astonishing abilities is the almost spooky way in which he nails a harmony vocal, particularly with his female partners.

"Cruel Moon" features Miller alongside some of the best in the business, including Joy Lynn White ("Sometimes I Cry," "I'm Not Getting Any Better at Goodbyes," "I'm Gonna Be Strong"), Emmylou Harris ("Cruel Moon"), and, as always, Julie. The harmonies that emanate from the Millers take on an almost other worldly quality, approaching the kind of perfection that has long been considered attainable only by siblings.

"It feels sometimes like we're getting it right now," Buddy understates. "We just had our anniversary yesterday, 17 years now, and I think the time has added to making it all work. When we're singing, it's just a very natural thing."

It seems that Buddy was destined to be the yin to someone else's yang, with his harmonic talents matched only by his ability to collaborate on a song. Although he has written solo, some of his best works come when he's just half of the writing credit, a situation that he prefers.

Although Miller has written with a number of big names, including Austin singer/songwriter Gurf Morlix and his old boss Jim Lauderdale, his greatest songs have come in collaboration with Julie, his constant writing counterpart. They miraculously combine an intimate writing relationship with a marriage and find success on both fronts.

"It's a little more intense," Buddy says of his writing synergy with Julie as opposed to other collaborators. "It'll be along the same lines, either she'll have a piece that's not finished, or I'll have a piece that's not finished. Rarely do we sit down and try to write something from scratch."

The song fragments that comprise Buddy's archive are holdovers from his days as a performer, prior to his relatively recent recording career.

Long before his 1995 debut on Hightone, "Your Love and Other Lies," Miller's band membership included guitar stints with Jim Lauderdale and Steve Earle, as well as his own early '80's bands, featuring future luminaries Larry Campbell on guitar and Shawn Colvin on vocals.

Although he was writing continuously, there was little incentive for Miller to actually finish a song.

"I got a lot of pieces," he says. "But before I was recording, I just didn't have a reason to finish them. I'd just be doing whatever I needed to do to pay the rent at the time, and finishing songs wasn't high on the list of things to do. So there's a lot of pieces, and we write them as we need them."

The most amazing aspect of the songwriting relationship between the Millers is the brutally honest country songs that spring from it. "Cruel Moon's" lead track, "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger," is a prime example of the kind of soul scorching material that the pair routinely produce.

"One reviewer, who was covering both records, said, 'The seemingly happy couple,'" Buddy says with a laugh. "I don't know where these things come from, I think they're just better songs when we start singing them. Sometimes it'll be about friends that are splitting up because that stuff comes to mind. And it's inside of us, I think we all have that inside of us. Maybe it's just a whole lot harder to write a happy song."

In addition to the emotional intensity of the material is the clean, but coarse sonic edge that Miller's home production lends to the proceedings. His boardwork has been in demand recently, and he's done most of his and Julie's albums from the confines of their living room, where Dogtown is centered. Buddy's studio philosophy sounds suspiciously like his life philosophy.

"Every record I work on, I learn," Buddy says of the process. "I don't claim to know what I'm doing, I'm just hoping for the best. I'm always experimenting with recording techniques, flying by the seat of my pants. I try to get things done real fast, before you start thinking about it. Before the players and everybody learns the song, I try to get that on tape. So you have that excitement when you're first understanding it and putting everything into it. Because even the next time you play it, it'll sound different. It'll sound safe. I try to get things recorded close to the bone. I like the sound of instruments. I don't like the sound of a lot of records."