Frame of reference is the conundrum of alternative country, this loose grouping of artists simultaneously celebrated as radically ahead of the times and dismissed as studied anachronism. That issue really hit home for me with the first album billed equally to Buddy & Julie Miller.
By “hit home,” I mean literally, for it was plain when I played this for my family that we were hearing the music very differently. There were no problems with the kickoff track, where the Millers apply their Southern drawls to the Celtic strains of Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance”, providing backwoods homage to of the sort of bittersweet, close-harmony confession that Richard sang to perfection with his former wife, Linda.
But with the Appalachian vocal strains of the second cut, “The River’s Gonna Run”, my wife asked accusingly, “Is this some more of that George Clooney music?” It seems the impact of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is so pervasive that anything smacking of mountain traditionalism — even, in this case, with a powerhouse rhythm section behind it — sounds like it’s cresting that ridge. Though the Millers had nothing to do with O Brother, my wife simply couldn’t hear them without envisioning Clooney and his Soggy Mountain compatriots, wearing their goofy beards, dancing their goofy dance. As if more than a half-century of musical tradition culminated in another of those this-too-shall-pass novelties that pop culture contrives to amuse itself.
That the Millers work within a well-defined idiom makes it all the harder to get skeptics to hear what a bracingly original vision distinguishes their work. There are those for whom such harmonies will automatically connote “hick music” (as my daughters dismiss it), just as there are those at the opposite pole for whom fiddle strains and a bluegrass trill automatically suggest an exalted musical purity, rather than clichés that can be as homogenized as the contemporary country this stuff supposedly renews.
What makes the Millers’ music so vital is that it threatens the complacency of convention, even while drawing so deeply from the inspirational well of tradition. As guitarist for Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, as producer for Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and on three solo albums, Buddy has consistently demonstrated his ability to mediate between reverence for the country canon and an insurrectionist’s urge to wrench something new, prickly, perhaps even timeless, from such elements.
While Julie has been his collaborator through most of this, her two HighTone albums (following a string of contemporary Christian releases) mark her as the most breathlessly idiosyncratic spiritual-sensualist this side of Victoria Williams. Though her heart-on-sleeve eccentricities would seem to be at odds with Buddy’s hardscrabble country, it’s likely because this marriage of musical styles shouldn’t work that it works so brilliantly. Buddy’s razor-sharp guitar slices through some of Julie’s indulgences that might otherwise seem cloyingly affected, while the emotional transparency of her songwriting leads him into uncomfortable territory that he might be hesitant to explore on his own.
Since my own frame of reference reflects a decided preference for the roadhouse bar over the folk confessional, my initial reaction to this long-overdue billing (hasn’t every one of their solo efforts been a Buddy & Julie Miller album?) was that there was too much Julie, not enough Buddy. Rather than reflecting their songwriting equally, the eleven-song disc features seven tunes penned by Julie; she shares credit with Buddy on another (his only writing contribution). In addition to the anthemic Thompson opener, the other outside material includes a majestic reading of “Rock Salt And Nails” (written by traditionalist troubadour Bruce “U. Utah” Phillips) and a dispensable version of “Wallflower” (a slice of lesser Dylan from the early ’70s, when Doug Sahm recorded the only rendition necessary).
As for the original material, despite my initial reservations, the partnership seems more crucial the deeper this music draws the listener in. Buddy has the reputation as the hotshot producer, yet the homespun credit reads only “Made by Buddy and Julie Miller.” Though Julie’s songwriting dominates, Buddy’s imprint is all over the place, making many of her songs as much his, pushing the arrangements to extremes that transcend the strictures of either folk or country.
Take “Little Darlin’”, a Julie song that begins as the most elemental exercise in Appalachian harmony, until the fiddle of Larry Campbell (of Dylan’s band) propels the arrangement southwest toward Cajun country, where Buddy’s guitar sends it soaring toward the sonic stratosphere, exploring the sort of aural dimensions that Marc Ribot has with Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. It’s the sort of tradition-based music that would jolt a traditional purist, yet might still sound old-timey to those who can’t hear past the reedy vocal strains.
Or take “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast”, which to these ears sounds like the “Wild Thing” of alt-country. Amid the primal throb — courtesy of drummer Brady Blade (Buddy’s bandmate in Emmylou Harris’s Spyboy) — and garage-band urgency, Julie sings of desire so pulverizing that its expression is the sexual equivalent of talking in tongues. You don’t write songs like this from the head (“You make me think I could miss you/You make me think I should kiss you”), you spurt them from the libido.
“That’s Just How She Cries”, which could serve as a more disarmingly tender companion piece to Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”, is a song only Julie could write, though it’s better that Buddy sings it. The acoustic “Forever Has Come To An End” is the album’s most O Brotherly highlight, adding Emmylou to the trembling harmonies. “Dirty Water”, the Millers’ lone songwriting collaboration on the album, finds Buddy’s swampy guitar (think Roebuck Staples/John Fogerty) leading the listener deep into the music’s ghostly atmospherics.
From a traditional base, the Millers explore such a rich expanse of emotions and effects that their collaboration ultimately sounds like an artistic world unto itself. With the closer, “Holding Up The Sky”, bringing the conviction of prayer to their testament of marital faith, it seems that the only frame of reference for these two is each other.