Buddy and Julie Miller have been harmonizing for 20 years with a passion not heard in country music since the heyday of A.P. and Maybelle Carter. Julie’s little-girl voice contrasts with husband Buddy’s sandpaper howl in an eerie yet soothing style that brings to mind the grand duets of Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton; Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty; and George Jones and Tammy Wynette. As a guitarist Buddy Miller is widely considered a musical wizard, his unique “less is more” style earning him the role of lead guitarist and bandleader for Emmylou Harris as well as contributions to Lucinda Williams’ classic album Car Wheels On a Gravel Road. The couple recently released their first “official” recording under the family name, “Buddy and Julie Miller,” which was up against the likes of Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, and Gillian Welch for best contemporary folk album.
Black & White: Where did you and Julie meet?
Buddy Miller: In Austin. She’s from there, and I auditioned for a band that she was the chick singer in. In trying to be discriminating, she told them not to hire me. They hired me anyway, and we became pals after that.
B&W: Did she give a reason for not wanting you in the band?
Miller: She was a teenager and she wanted to appear like she had good taste. So she just said, “No, he’s no good.” But they hired me anyway.
B&W: I was impressed to see that Little Jimmy Scott had recorded one of your songs.
Miller: Yeah, one of Julie’s songs. In Nashville, a lot of the things that get recorded are by Nashville artists, and we’ll hear about it in advance. People that have our songs will be real excited and call us up and say, “Hey man, so-and-so’s cutting this song.” So I was on a gig out in L.A. with Emmylou and somebody said, “Hey, Little Jimmy Scott cut Julie’s song ‘All My Tears,’” and I just looked at him and said, “Nah, you must be wrong.” And later on at the gig, the guy went out and bought the record and brought it to me, and I flipped. It was such a cool version of the song. I took a red-eye home, and got back at seven in the morning. Julie was still asleep, and I just put it on the record player in the bedroom, and she didn’t even recognize her song until about a minute into it.
B&W: Is there anyone who you would like to hear record one of your songs?
Miller: It sounds funny to say it ’cause he’s so fashionable, but we’ve always been such huge Ralph Stanley fans. That was one of the things that we had in common when we met way back when. Julie actually wrote that song “All My Tears” with Ralph in mind. And we did get to sing it to him on this last “Down From the Mountain” tour back in his dressing room. We were in Emmylou’s band for that whole tour.
B&W: Has the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Down From the Mountain been a boost to your career?
Miller: I don’t think so. Things were going OK before that kicked into high gear, and they’re going OK now. It probably is, and I just don’t know it. I think it’s helping everything a little bit. If people hear good music, I think that can only be a good thing. I don’t know if it’s changed country radio. When I’m flipping television channels — I don’t watch that CMT thing — I see the little 15-year-old video disc jockeys talking about bluegrass every once in awhile.
B&W: Nashville has a pretty vibrant scene that’s apart from the typical country stars.
Miller: Yeah, we live right down the street from all that. We’re real close to Music Row. We’re so disconnected from that. There’s such a great community of singer/songwriters and folks that are so like-minded with us. It’s a great town; there’s so much going on.
B&W: Do you and Julie have similar tastes in what you listen to?
Miller: It’s funny. Julie can write a great country song and sing great. But she just wants to rock if left to her own devices. Whenever she comes down into our music room when we’re working, she wants me to put on Social Distortion. So, we kind of have our little feuds, but I love singing with her.
B&W: I heard someone say that you can play guitar every bit as well as Richard Thompson, but you’re funky.
Miller: [Laughs] Well, I wish I could play like Richard Thompson. He’s just unbelievable. I did get to meet him once, but I’m sure he wouldn’t remember. We’re huge fans of his songs and his guitar playing. I love guitar players who go out on a limb and don’t even think about it. It’s just what they do. They get out there and if they get back, great. If not, great. Richard Thompson, Daniel Lanois. Dave Rawlings, I think, might be my favorite guitar player. He plays with Gillian Welch.
B&W: Ever see George Jones and Tammy Wynette perform together?
Miller: Yes. The night I saw them, they closed the show with “The Ceremony” [a 1970s hit where George and Tammy basically sing wedding vows to one another], and when he got to the line about “I’ll take this woman” he pointed to a girl in the front row. When I got in my car to drive back home, the news came on and said, “Tammy Wynette filed for divorce today.” [Laughs] It must have been 1972 or 1973 and they still had the bus that had “Mr. and Mrs. Country Music” on the side.
B&W: You’ve done the Grand Ole Opry with Emmylou?
Miller: Yeah, a couple of times. I did it at the Ryman and did it at the new Opry. It was a real thrill. I’m a big Porter Waggoner fan. He was so far ahead of his time. When I went with Emmylou to play the Opry, I was really sick. I told her, “I’ve never asked anything of you, but I want to meet Porter Waggoner.” But I was too sick and I think she spaced out. She was having a gig and her drummer kinda disappeared. You know, the Opry is a tightly run ship, and she has her 10 minutes or whatever on stage. When it’s time, you’re on stage and playing, whether you’re there or not. She’s introduced and we’re up there, and we’ve got no drummer. She was a little upset at him after that. Well, actually, she wasn’t. She’s very forgiving, but she had to tell a joke on stage while [the drummer] was chitchatting with Grandpa Jones at the Coke machine. &
Buddy and Julie Miller perform on the Blockbuster Stage on Saturday, May 18, at 6:35 p.m