SPOTLIGHT: Buddy and Julie Miller Make One for the Team
Photo by Kate York
Although it’s been 10 years since their last album, Written in Chalk, Buddy and Julie Miller didn’t have any special plans to make a new album. Their new record, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South, out on New West on June 21, took them both a little by surprise, especially since they hadn’t worked together for so long.
Ten years ago, Julie discovered she had fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by pain and fatigue, and dealing with her health kept her from working on anything new. Around the same time, Buddy was keeping busy with everything else.
He toured with Emmylou Harris and with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant for Raising Sand, and did a lot of producing.
“I didn’t take anything I didn’t love,” he says. “I got to make music with people I love. I hate to miss out on fun musically. I took over as executive music producer, from T Bone Burnett, for Nashville. It was a crazy 10 years. Every show was like making an album.”
As Julie says of the space between albums, “I tried to figure out a way to make it his fault, but I couldn’t — though he’ll tell you it is his fault. And he still tries to take the blame,” she laughs.
Buddy Miller has a beautiful studio in their home on 20th Avenue South in Nashville, but the couple didn’t make the album there. After recording one song — “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” — in a tiny space in an upstairs bedroom, they so liked the emotional clarity of the sound they kept recording there. Buddy admits that it was a challenge to record in such a small space, but, he says, “we have this honest batch of songs recorded in an honest fashion.”
“Julie has been on this creative output that doesn’t seem to end,” he says. She would bring him a song, and he would play all the instruments on it, demo-ing the song. “This was different from every record I’ve ever made,” Miller says. Once they had five or six songs, Buddy reminded Julie: “You know, we have this record label, and they’ve been waiting for your next album.”
“When Buddy told me that,” Julie laughs, “I had an accountable witness.”
“I didn’t go into this thinking we were making a record,” Buddy recalls. “We didn’t even say we were making a record. Half of the songs we started out with didn’t even make it onto the album.”
Buddy Miller says he wanted this to be Julie’s album. “Her productivity is insane. She will pick up a guitar and the song will just flow out.” He says he just tries to play something and to get out of the way of the song. As a producer, he didn’t try to put his sonic imprint on the album. “I try to see what’s there. Just to steer the boat and keep it out of muddy waters.” According to Julie, Buddy’s ability to play anything, his deep music knowledge — “he’s a musicologist of old country music!” — and his ability to hear things differently than she does are his greatest assets and what helped him steer this album. “I don’t know how he does what he does. I don’t know why he gave me this record. I think it was because he felt bad about being away,” she says.
Breakdown on 20th Ave. South may be the most personal album that the couple has made; it reflects some of the tensions of two creative people moving in different directions for so long and then tentatively and slowly coming back together.
“Julie is brutally honest,” says Buddy.
“Buddy can get pushy in the studio sometimes when he thinks a song should go in a certain direction,” she laughs.
Yet, the honesty on this album reflects a search for restoration, a search to move beyond life’s tragedies, a search for just a little understanding, and a search for answers to questions of injustice. As Buddy tells it, “There was every kind of breakdown: physical, emotional, breakdown of relationship, musical breakdown.” For Julie, “the songs that were going to be on the record are not the songs that ended up being on the record. I was telling Shawn Colvin that I have this radio station in my head. All the lyrics came pouring out. God has his hand in it; I don’t think I’m that smart. A lot of the songs on here name the problem, others were more about God.”
After a slow fade-in, the propulsive, almost in-your-face, this-is-my-story title track opens with a chorus that forcefully dramatizes the darkness of any kind of breakdown: “In the night, in the night / Who hears the words coming out of your mouth / In the night, in the night / Breakdown on 20th Avenue South.” The song also weaves in chapters from Julie’s life: “I was a joyride, I was a hippie girl / I was like a baton that you could twirl / Malevolent forces, but I couldn’t swerve / When I think about it they had a lot of nerve.”
“I was wild,” Julie says of her younger days. “I was seeking self-approval and drugs, and I was also wild because I thought boys wanted you to be wild. But the song also describes some deep things that happened that caused me to have some disbelief about life.”
A deep vein of spirituality runs through her life and through the songs on Breakdown on 20th Ave. South. She recalls someone once telling her, “you know, Julie, a lot of people who are Christians are artificial, but you have become free and that freedom shows in your life and music.”
“‘Thoughts at 2 a.m.’ is the key to the record,” she says. “It was the most awful song I had. It tells the story of my life more than anything else. It’s about the end of days when God comes back.” Miller combines scenes drawn from the Bible about God’s return and God’s victory over the devil — “The time is soon yet soon the cursed snake will lose effect / And God Almighty’s bride will have her foot upon his neck” — with reflections on her personal journey: “I’ve fooled myself on purpose and I’ve been out on the run / I’ve painted myself pictures where I could hide from what I’ve done / But longingly the mighty one seeks me like a lost lamb / And tenderly he calls and says his child is who I am / Awake my heart, awake my heart, attune to hear his word / Inside the great cacophony a single voice is heard.”
Miller started writing the poignant “Underneath the Sky” 15 years ago. “I didn’t know what it was about, just the title,” she says. “I kept writing it but I didn’t know what it was about. My brother died. I used to feel that when someone was going to die I would feel it. He was a cowboy and loved riding horses. After he died, I was reading Psalm 18, and there’s a verse about riding cherubim, and I thought of him in heaven riding the cherubim.”
Julie Miller also designed the cover art for Breakdown on 20th Ave. South. “We have this old accordion from Italy, made in the 19th century, that my sister gave us,” Buddy recalls. On the accordion, he says, a picture of the accordion’s maker was positioned between two winged horses. Julie replaced the picture of the accordion maker with a stained-glass rose inside a heart to center the image. “Want to know what cherubim look like?” she asks; “They look like those horses with wing that frame the heart on the cover.”
Riding in on cherubim, Buddy and Julie Miller deliver a touching, heartbreaking, brutally honest set of songs on Breakdown on 20th Ave. South, and it’s a welcome gift to have them here with us again.
Buddy and Julie Miller are No Depression‘s Spotlight artists for June 2019. Look for more stories and songs from them all month long.