Julie Miller – In The Beginning
People coming to Julie Miller via the country work of her husband Buddy may be surprised to learn her recording career actually predates his: Blue Pony isn’t her first album, it’s her fifth. Between 1990 and 1994, Miller made four albums in the contemporary Christian field, all of which she and Buddy co-produced.
Like Blue Pony, Miller’s Christian albums combine sweetly melodic pop, Appalachia-born gospel and wispy vocals, though their songs are more direct. Those qualities, however, give her best religious songs — “Angels Dance”, “All My Tears (Be Washed Away)”, “Manger Throne”, “Praise To The Lord, Amen” — the singable quality of timeless American hymns.
Miller’s first three albums were released by Myrrh, the pop/rock-oriented arm of powerhouse Christian-music label Word. After a self-titled debut in 1990 that went mostly unnoticed, Miller released He Walks Through Walls in 1991. It features backing vocals by Shawn Colvin, Victoria Williams and Christian singer-songwriter Mark Heard, and contains “Broken Things”, which later was covered by pop duo the Williams Brothers (no relation to Victoria, though they’ve frequently performed with her). Miller returned the favor in 1994 by covering the Williams’ “Can’t Cry Hard Enough”, which Victoria Williams recorded on Swing the Statue in 1990.
The songs on Miller’s most fully realized album, 1993’s Orphans And Angels, range from the idyllic pop of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” to eulogies for a fallen friend. Miller wrote “All My Tears (Be Washed Away)” in memory of Mark Heard, who died of a heart attack at 42 (she covers his “Treasures of the Broken Land” on this album). Miller sings “All My Tears” here as a duet with Emmylou Harris, who later recorded the song herself on Wrecking Ball, as did jazz singer Jimmy Scott on a recent album.
For 1994’s Invisible Girl, Miller left Myrrh for the independent label Street Level. Working with co-producer Dan Posthuma for the first time, she and Buddy stripped away some of the sheen of her earlier albums for what in retrospect is a transition from a strictly Christian-music career to the broader musical aspirations of Blue Pony. While she sings “I Will Be With You” with Christian auteur Charlie Peacock, she also brings in a bevy of backup musicians including former Lone Justice drummer Don Heffington, Mark Olson (then still of the Jayhawks), Valerie Carter and Victoria Williams.
Throughout these three albums, Miller’s waifish voice seems to convey childlike innocence, yet the content of her songs is often far from that. In “Precious to God”, from Orphans and Angels, Miller sings in the persona of a woman who “knows there are secrets daddies have that little girls must keep…but she doesn’t know how to feel precious to God.” On the same album, though, she balances the horror of sexual abuse with a song written with Victoria Williams in which God meets his world-weary children with “a smile so wide it’ll make the angels dance.”
Like Williams, Miller is one of the few songwriters who has effectively balanced adult themes with the Christian mandate to become like children in order to to enter the kingdom of heaven. In these four albums, as well as on Blue Pony, Miller comes across as an embodiment of grace, with all its social — and religious — connotations.