Julie Miller – The Millers’ Tale
“I always just wanted to be the girl in the band,” Julie Miller confesses, by way of explaining why she rarely plays shows entirely on her own. While she might not be cut out for the role of solo singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar, Miller’s modest statement belies the simple fact that her talent reaches well beyond mere girl-in-the-band status.
As a songwriter, she has already established herself as one of the brightest lights gleaming in the shadows of Nashville’s tunesmithing machinery. In the past two years, her haunting ballad “All My Tears” has been covered not only by country legend Emmylou Harris, but also by recently rediscovered jazz singer Jimmy Scott. She wrote two songs and co-wrote five others on Your Love And Other Lies, the acclaimed 1995 debut of her husband, Buddy Miller.
As a singer, her presence is personal and distinctive, full of melody and emotion and spiked with a slight twang that at times recalls the voice of her good friend Victoria Williams. As a recording artist, Julie is a seasoned veteran, with four albums to her credit in the 1990s on Christian-music labels.
But it’s her fifth, Blue Pony — which came out April 22 on HighTone Records — that stands to broaden her popularity among secular audiences. The 13-song disc features guest vocal contributions from the likes of Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, and Karen Peris (of The Innocence Mission), as well as fine instrumental backing from the likes of her husband Buddy (who co-produced the album with her), Dead Reckoning fiddler Tammy Rogers, longtime Lucinda Williams drummer Donald Lindley and others.
A stellar supporting cast helps, but Julie’s own talent is what brings Blue Pony to fruition. From the beguiling pop groove of the opening cut “A Kiss On The Lips” (a seemingly sure-fire track for AAA radio), to the countryish strains of “Take Me Back”, to the irresistibly catchy, bouncy melody that drives “All The Pieces Of Mary”, to the more urgent, driving rock of “I Call On You”, to the mid-tempo yearning of “Letters To Emily”, Blue Pony is a showcase for the considerable range and depth of Julie’s abilities as a songwriter.
“You’ve got a married couple here, it’s gonna take awhile,” Julie cautions with a laugh as she and Buddy banter back and forth about when certain events in their careers took place. It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon at Magnolia Cafe during the South by Southwest Music Conference in mid-March; it seems fitting that our conversation is taking place in Austin, given that all three of us are expatriates of that fair city. Julie grew up there, graduating from high school in 1974 and meeting Buddy shortly after he moved to Austin in 1976. Buddy was auditioning for a band Julie was in at the time; “they all asked her what she thought of me, and she said, ‘He’s no good, don’t hire him.’ But they hired me anyway,” Buddy recalled with a wry grin. As you’d expect from a couple who have been together for two decades, they indulge in the occasional opportunity to rib and needle each other over various minor details.
In the big picture they seem very compatible, both in terms of personality — Buddy’s soft-spoken, down-to-earth friendliness is a yin to the yang of Julie’s far-flung, laughter-laden conversational mode — and in terms of musicality. “We’re sort of the picture of enmeshment codependency,” Julie says. They’ve collaborated musically in various forms and incarnations almost constantly since they first met, sometimes with Julie singing in Buddy’s band, sometimes with Buddy playing on Julie’s records, sometimes co-writing, sometimes co-producing.
In that sense, their relationship seems somewhat similar to that of another married couple, Victoria Williams and former Jayhawk Mark Olson, who happen to be good friends of the Millers. In fact, the four of them, along with country singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, toured Europe last winter under the moniker of the Creek Dippers.
Victoria and Julie in particular seem to be kindred spirits, two peas in a highly eccentric pod — and it’s been that way since they met a decade ago. In fact, that’s why they met.
“We met at a little coffee shop in San Francisco when we lived there, around ’87 or so,” Julie recalls. “I had played at this little coffee shop, and after I was done, people would come up and they’d go, ‘You remind us of this girl who played here, her name’s Victoria Williams.’ And I’d been getting that in a lot of places, so I got really curious. So, when I heard she was playing there, I went down and I met her, and we sang together that night, on a Hank Williams song, ‘House of Gold’. And then she came over to our apartment, and we’ve been pals ever since.”