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Once again, it's (Julie) Miller's time

By Dan MacIntosh, September 1999

Julie Miller's latest album, "Broken Things," once again highlights the sad and serious songs of a woman who - in contrast to her art - comes off like a giggly schoolgirl in real life.

Over the phone, these distinctly differing personalities are striking. Can that tiny voice on the other end of the line be the same one that gives life to such somber reflections upon mortality as "I Still Cry" and "All My Tears"? Or what about her reading of "Two Soldiers," a traditional Civil War lament? Is this really that same person?

"It seems that my happiness is expressed in laughter from moment to moment," says Miller, just barely quelling her own laughter briefly. "But my deeper feelings...I guess I just don't know how to express them in conversation, so they find their way out through songs."

While Miller, who released "Blue Pony" on Hightone as well in 1997, spends a fair amount of time analyzing the dramas in others' lives through song, she's not beyond a little self-examination.

This album's title track, in fact, squarely faces the woman in the mirror. Nevertheless, when Miller focuses her attention upon the trials and tribulations of those people she see around her, her songwriting skills truly shine.

"I just get so moved by people's lives, and the things they have to go through. I know that each heart knows its own joy, and no one else can know it - other than God. But I do really feel a lot of concern for people who are suffering, and who are in difficult circumstances, because there certainly is an awful lot of that (suffering) on this planet."

"I Still Cry," weaves together Miller's reflections upon two recently deceased musician friends. "The song's first couple of lines ("I still cry sometimes when I think of you") came when I was walking around the house singing it. I was just listening to Mark Heard records. I just had those lines. I then started making up the melody, but I didn't have any of the verses."

Heard, by the way, was a great underrated songwriter who passed away before becoming a household name. But he left a lasting impact upon many musicians, and worked with Miller and her musician husband, Buddy, extensively.

"A few weeks after this, we got a call from Donald Lindley, who was the drummer on my last few records. He was a dear friend. He'd been Lucinda Williams' drummer for a long time, and he'd been on Buddy and Jim Lauderdale'srecords. Just a fantastic person."

Miller was anxiously looking forward to having Lindley once again come and play with her for this album, but fate had other plans.

"He called up and said he couldn't come because he'd just found out that he had cancer. I was gonna wait until he could do the record, but within two months of finding out he had cancer, he passed away."

The album credits dedicate this recording to Lindley. In fact, his passing saturates the mood of the recording completely.

"That colored the entire recording experience of this record so much for me. It gave it such a serious and eternal view of life."

"It was kind of sad," she says, getting back to the song. "It started about one friend (Mark Heard), but ended up with another."

Such testing of the human spirit, where the losing loved ones much be faced, has been going on since the beginning of time, which gives Miller's rendition of an old Civil War ballad a kind of timeless quality.

The circumstances which led to Miller covering "Two Soldiers" came clothed in altruism. "Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt were gonna do a record together," explains Miller "and I thought of this song. I thought, 'They should do this song together.' So I did a recording of it to give to Emmylou, because she'd never heard the song."

"The funny thing was, they were already doing a song about the Civil War on their album. So, I then thought, 'I guess the only way I'm going to get to hear Emmylou sing this, is to do it with her myself.'"

This Texan, who arrived in Nashville by way of California, has received a quick education on Civil War geography since moving to her current Tennessee home.

"You're reminded an awful lot of that subject here in this neighborhood. There are historical markers just a half a block from my house. The lines were drawn in a big Civil War battle nearby, and it makes you wonder just how many young men fell here. It's just an odd thing to sit in your backyard and picture them."

One of her duet partners on this release is Steve Earle, who certainly has been through a few of his own personal battles. Ironically, the song they chose to sing together, "Strange Love," about a woman who has had it with her womanizing and drugging man. Sound familiar? Sound a little bit like Steve's own life?

"Steve is such a dear person, and he kept saying, 'If you need me to sing on anything, just call me up.' I was going through the songs we had, and just musically, I could hear him singing that song. But subject-wise, it was way too obvious."

"So, I jokingly said to him 'Here, I've got a song for you, Steve. It's all about cocaine, so that's how we know it's for you.' And I started laughing, because I wasn't seriously going to get him to sing it."

"But I guess it was like reverse psychology on him: If you tell him he can't do it, then he wants to do it."

Miller, who also has recorded four Christian music albums, has only known Earle in his post-drug days. It was through her musical soul-mate, Victoria Williams, that she first heard of the Duke.

"My friend Victoria was friends with him, and she'd told me 10 years before 'pray for Steve Earle,' because she was going around opening shows for him then."

"We just kind of crossed paths at recording studio here in town, and he heard Buddy, and now he's a big Buddy fan." So much so, in fact, Buddy Miller has served as Earle's guitarist - when, of course, this in-demand musician is not already touring in that same role with Harris.

One senses that life is a struggle for Julie anytime Buddy's gone, although the soon will tour together with Dave Alvin.

"I'm like a dog whose master is gone. Oh, I'll be depressed until he comes back. Just knowing that he enjoys what he's doing so much, though, makes it worthwhile."