Buddy Miller – Hearts on fire
Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.
— St. Augustine
How many times have you read a record review with the word “longing” in it? “The longing in her voice was palpable.” “Few write with such longing.” “On this wrenching ode to longing and loss, blah, blah, blah.” The word is among the most shopworn modifiers in the rock-crit lexicon — a workhorse pressed into service anytime a lazy writer, or one with a deadline looming, needs shorthand to talk about the vaguest stirrings of desire.
But this isn’t the sort of longing St. Augustine is talking about in the above passage from The Confessions. He isn’t referring to mere restlessness, to an emotion that ebbs and flows with our moods, much as, say, boredom and wanderlust do. No, he’s talking about a basic hunger, about a condition stitched into the fabric of our beings, a striving for something more. Much more. Augustine is saying that people are by nature incomplete — broken, even — and that we can’t find peace or fulfillment without an abiding connection to that which transcends and grounds us. In his view, God.
The 1,600-year-old theology of the Bishop of Hippo doubtless doesn’t leap to mind when people hear Buddy and Julie Miller’s records. Chances are that most marvel at how no one, not even the couple’s close friend and collaborator Emmylou Harris, sings the Millers’ songs with the heart-in-throat conviction they do. Others wonder why the couple hasn’t received wider recognition. Still others dwell on how much the duo sounds like Gram and Emmylou circa Grievous Angel, or, in their more Anglo-Celtic-derived moments, like Richard and Linda Thompson.
These, however, are but passing considerations. Writ large as it is in their music, it’s the ontological gnawing of which Augustine speaks that strikes at the heart of who the Millers are — their faith, their relationship with each other, their sense of vocation.
Virtually every song in the couple’s catalog is born of this yearning. “I Call On You”, “Take Me Back”, “Out In The Rain”, “My Love Will Follow You”, “Don’t Tell Me” — all burn with a seemingly infinite desire to connect. “I need something like a cure for my soul,” moans Julie on the strung-out blues-rock of “I Need You”, a song from her stunning new album, Broken Things (HighTone). This plea turns to desperation when Buddy joins her on the lines, “I need something bad and I need it now/I got something wrong with me/You better fix it cause I don’t know how/I need you.”
This craving suffuses more than just the Millers’ lyrics. From the couple’s ravaged harmonies, to Buddy’s fevered guitar playing — his stabbing solo on “I Need You” smacks of the pangs of withdrawal — the Millers abandon themselves to this deep-rooted urge as if their lives depended on it. And to varying degrees, they do. Having no direction home nearly killed Julie. As it was, it literally drove her crazy and easily could have driven the couple apart.++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
This is an excerpt of the full article which appeared in The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music, which features 25 of the finest articles from the magazines back issues, and was published in 2005 by University of Texas Press to help celebrate the magazines 10th anniversary. Due to our agreement with UT Press we are unable to include this article in our online archive.
The Best of No Depression is the only place you can find these articles other than our back issues. Visit the No Depression store to buy your copy for only $10.
The 300-page volume includes co-editor Grant Aldens award-winning 2001 feature on Billy Joe Shaver, co-editor Peter Blackstocks 1998 Artist of the Decade piece on Alejandro Escovedo, senior editor Bill Friskics-Warrens 2002 cover story on Johnny Cash, contributing editor Paul Cantins deep exploration of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco; and many other high points from our print heyday.
Table of contents for The Best of No Depression:
Preface, by Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock
Los Lobos, by Geoffrey Himes
Alejandro Escovedo, by Peter Blackstock
Jon Dee Graham, by Peter Blackstock
Billy Joe Shaver, by Grant Alden
Ray Wylie Hubbard, by John T. Davis
Flatlanders, by Don McLeese
Ray Price, by David Cantwell
Johnny Gimble, by Bill C. Malone
Johnny Cash, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Rosanne Cash, by Lloyd Sachs
Lucinda Williams, by Silas House
Buddy & Julie Miller, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Kasey Chambers, by Geoffrey Himes
Loretta Lynn, by Barry Mazor
Patty Loveless, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Kieran Kane, by Peter Cooper
Paul Burch, by Jim Ridley
Hazel Dickens, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Gillian Welch, by Grant Alden
Ryan Adams, by David Menconi
Jay Farrar, by Peter Blackstock
Jayhawks, by Erik Flannigan
Wilco, by Paul Cantin
Drive-By Truckers, by Grant Alden
Iron & Wine, by William Bowers