Julie Miller - Biography
There’s a reason you see so many t-shirts in Austin that read, “Burn, Nashville, Burn.” Nashville knows how to work the show-biz razzle dazzle, but aesthetic insight, a respect for history, and basic good taste are not its collective strong suite. The country-music industry completely ignored the nascent Outlaw movement in the late 1960s and early 70s, preferring to wring dry the commercial potential of saccharine, Nash Vegas dross. That left it up to artists like Waylon and Willie and Kris and Townes to emerge from the periphery and redeem country music. The same thing happened in the late 1980s and early 90s, when Nashville aped the very worst excesses of arena rock. When Garth Brooks started flying through the air on wires like a grotesque and distended Peter Pan, something had to give. Julie Miller may not be as well known as some of her contemporaries, but with her achingly poignant lyrics, sincere and engaging delivery, her well-considered affinity to the subtler aspects of instrumentation and arrangements, and her genuine and compelling spiritualism, Miller helped restore some desperately needed gravitas and smarts to country music. She pulled it closer to its roots in folk music, which was more than enough to draw her closer to discerning fans’ hearts.
She was born Julie Griffin on July 12, 1956 in Waxahachie, Texas. Griffin married the singer/guitarist/producer/iconoclast Buddy Miller in 1981, and their partnership has been a powerful creative ferment ever since. Julie’s first demo caught the attention of Sam Phillips (history suggests this is a pretty decent way to initiate a career), who secured her a record deal. Meet Julie Miller (1990 Myrrh Records) was a heart-rending and impressive debut, augmented by appearances by Shawn Colvin, Amy Grant and Victoria Williams; the grouping worked again on He Walks Through Walls (1991 Myrrh Records). Miller garnered even more recognition with Orphans and Angels (1993 Myrrh/Word), which included “All My Tears” with Emmylou Harris. In the meantime, Buddy was preparing his solo debut, which relied heavily on Julie’s fragrant lilt — in tandem with her husband’s gruff demeanor, it was an impeccable juxtaposition. Your Love and Other Lies (1995 Hightone) wasn’t a commercial hit, but it turned heads in the music community.
Buddy was soon touring with Emmylou Harris, and both would appear on Julie’s albums Blue Pony (1997 Hightone) and Broken Things (1997 Hightone). These titles are understated gems, awash in gossamer delicacy and gentle nuance, with understated instrumental flourishes and crisp, authoritative guitar parts by Buddy that serve to elevate the material, not swamp it. The late 1990s marked Miller’s departure from the overt Christian music community that championed her early work, but that benign break heightened her visibility in the cultural mainstream. The implicit was made explicit with Buddy & Julie Miller (2001 Hightone), in which they finally acknowledge the extent to which all of their respective solo albums were part of a wonderfully intuitive collaborative process. As always, they’re perfect for each other, coaxing out the strongest work of the other, while maintaining a lovely equilibrium. They shine on covers of Bob Dylan’s “Wildflower” and Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance.” It’s a rollicking effort, and a rebuttal to critics who can’t see beyond the “folk” appellation.
Julie made essential contributions to Buddy’s gospel-roots-revival masterpiece, Universal United House of Prayer (2004 New West); on several tracks she cuts loose with some bluesy, capital-T Testimony that could make Mick Jagger shake his hips into a pew. The Millers also spent much of the decades bolstering the careers of other artists with their superb songwriting. Julie Miller’s songs have been performed by luminaries including Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack, Linda Ronstadt and the Dixie Chicks. At the end of the decade she and Buddy returned with Written in Chalk (2009 New West). It’s a trans-genre masterpiece that touches on country, blues, folk, and copious amounts of legitimate soul. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant guests, and his sincere reverence towards the mood and material is obvious. Buddy now fills some enormous shoes, touring with Plant as his guitarist. But Plant no longer tears through “Kasmir” and the like. He instead puts forth an understated, heartfelt interpretation of folk and country. It all circles back to Garth Brooks and Peter Pan. Nashville would have had country diehards like the Millers gravitate towards arena rock. Instead, Julie and Buddy Miller persevered until the rockers finally saw it their way.