I’ve been wracking my mind trying to think of another married couple that have recorded together with the same sympatico and creativity that I hear when ace Americana guitarist and sideman Buddy Miller records with his songwriter wife Julie Miller. Of course, there was Richard and Linda Thompson, but we all know that didn’t end well, but probably produced the best break-up album ever in Shoot Out The Lights. In an interview, the Millers have described how Julie after releasing six albums into the Contemporary Christian market, recorded their 2001 self-titled debut as a duo, with Buddy & Julie Miller going on to win Album of the Year at the first ever Americana Awards. At some point Julie was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and stopped touring, and Buddy said he took every gig that came his way, touring initially with Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and later with Plant’s Band of Joy, which featured Patty Griffin, plus countless producing jobs in his home studio and work on the TV show, “Nashville.”
Buddy suggests that all that time away from home did some damage to their relationship, still the duo worked together on the 2009 album, Written In Chalk. He admits that their album a decade later, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South is all about the work they did to repair their relationship. From the sound of the 12 tracks here, all but one written entirely by Julie, the Millers are back in sync, each bringing their unique talents and skills to the project, pulling the best, most emotionally gratifying performances from each other. The album opens with two that suggest that the spark that led them to marry over 40 years ago, still produces as much heat as it does light. Julie sings in the gentle country rocker “You’re My Thrill,” about the melancholy that haunts her from time to time, but he’s where she turns “when I’ve got these blues to kill.” They share the lead vocal on the rockier “In the Throes,” let their voices ramble together in a delightful tangle until Buddy’s hot lead guitar takes a run, while they state the value of standing on their own two feet, while still being in thrall to one another, Julie adding a soulful “hey, hey” at the end to suggest she means it.
The bluesy ballad “Don’t Make Her Cry” was a song that Bob Dylan started with Regina McCrary, but when they weren’t able to finish it, he told her to “give it to Buddy.” So it laid around until Julie Miller picked it up and finished it off, even though Buddy sings lead on all the verses, Julie and McCrary joining in on the chorus. They follow that with the intricate folk acoustic intro to “Niccolo,” with them sharing the vocal again as the sound builds out into a fun, Americana rocker, again with some fine examples of Buddy’s great guitar tones. In “I Love You,” the duo confess how far they would go to “erect a monument” to their permanent love. The first half of the album concludes with a gentle gospel ballad sung to someone on their deathbed, promising that this is “The Last Bridge You Will Have to Cross,” with Emmylou Harris joining in on the chorus. It’s the prayerful Christian language of hope made all the more effective by the lovely deep cello playing of Matt Slocum, best known as the guitarist and songwriter with the band Sixpence None the Richer, who has just joined up with 10,000 Maniacs.
But flip the disc, and the mood changes dramatically. There’s a snarl in Julie’s voice as she announces in the bluesy, Irish lament that builds into a stompin’ Celtic rocker, “The Painkillers Ain’t Workin’,” a song that might stem from personal suffering, or a comment on our culture’s oxycontin addiction crisis, or it could be a comment on modern life in general, where Buddy’s sharp, cutting guitar solos speak to the existential suffering impacting the world at large. Pulling the energy down to a soulful country crier, Buddy sings “Tattooed Tear,” “all fragile and undone,” then Julie joins him to sing the line, “it’s nobody’s fault but mine.” It’s as believable an apology as you’ll hear.
But then, as if to switch the mood up again, Julie takes the lead on the rollicking, nearly out of tune blues rock rant of “I Been Around,” clearly played without much rehearsal or fine tuning to an old school rock & roll riff, her microphone with plenty of reverb and apparently ad-libbed at some points. It’s noisy hoot that kind of works like a palate cleanser, or maybe to wake up those in the back who’re falling asleep. “Heh, heh, HEH,” she shouts at the end, again to let us know she means it.
But “I’ll Never Live It Down,” puts Buddy back in apology mode, although at this point the listener is keenly aware that this song is written by Julie, and it’s likely her who “won’t come out your door, and you won’t let me in.” It’s a telling revelation that “I lost myself somewhere in the weeds, you never came to help, you never looked for me/you never knew how to love somebody like me/yes, you had a heart, but it wasn’t free,” but she wrote the words, and he is singing them. One has to hope that this song was a breaking point that brought them back together and In the Throes. The record closes out with another gospel song, this time declaring that “We’re Leaving,” a song about escaping off to heaven, the “eternal home on high,” joined on the vocals by Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams on vocals, and a bit of fiddle from Stuart Duncan. The brief closing song, finds Julie using her most child-like voice to sing a bit of a nursery rhyme, “Oh Shout.”
As someone who had a deep aversion to all things country music growing up, in many ways it was Uncle Tupelo and Buddy Miller and anyone and everyone he’s ever played with that have been my gateway drug back into the country roads of Americana folk roots, rock and blues. He got me listening to Emmylou, and Steve Earle, to Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, and T Bone Burnett’s whole “O Brother, Where Art Thou” crew. But Buddy and Julie set a high standard, mixing musical influences, deep, resonant emotionally real lyrics, and an artful quality that is rare for its consistency, while maintaining the capacity to surprise and delight.
“In The Throes” / “Don’t Make Her Cry” / “The Painkillers Ain’t Workin’”
ARTISTS WITH SIMILAR FIRE
Lucinda Williams / Steve Earle / Emmylou Harris
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