So I checked and no, Buddy Miller didn’t have CHRIST written on his baseball cap when he played the Bottom Line September 16; that was DUST
—squinting from a back table, we were kinda hoping it said A DURST, but no matter. It’s true, however, that he used to be Jewish, converting when his then girlfriend Julie became a born-again and said she’d leave him if he didn’t. Back then, in the early ’80s, he was in a band with Shawn Colvin. Since, he and Julie have played both sides of the country game like few others. Americana heroes Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris have hired Buddy as their lead guitarist, and appeared, like Lucinda Williams, on the Millers’ solo albums. But the Millers have also placed songs with major Nashville artists, including the Dixie Chicks (“Hole in My Head” on Fly), Lee Ann Womack (two on I Hope You Dance), Brooks & Dunn, and Suzy Bogguss (with Garth Brooks backing! They’ll land him yet!). Rock critics esteem the Millers too: Cruel Moon finished 49 in last year’s Pazz & Jop poll, Broken Things 51, which means either would have made the winner’s bracket if the other hadn’t split the vote. Taking care of that problem, the Millers are now recording a duets album, for release next year.
But I’m still seeing CHRIST. In the ’90s, Julie recorded several albums for the Christian label Myrrh, and there’s a deliberate banality to tracks like “Jesus in Your Eyes,” “Treasure of the Broken Land,” and “How Could You Say No” that raises questions about everything she’s done since. Christian music needn’t take this course, as the Millers’ old pal Victoria Williams (they sang “Lift Him Up” together back on Swing the Statue) has proven with her visions of the earth flowering in grace. When the Millers covered Mark Heard’s “Orphans of God,” which links faithlessness and capitalism, on a 1994 tribute album, they sounded firm and mysterious—a small echo of Prince’s “The Cross.” The Millers’ own HighTone albums are more sophisticated. Buddy’s three cross honky-tonk, ’60s rock, and tales of romantic betrayal, often with lyrics by Julie. Julie’s two, where she writes the music too, have more of a pop-rock confessional feel, subtly blur soul mate and Jesus, and visit unexpected places. “Strange Lover,” an Earle duet that spins out on a hard-edged roots groove, is about cocaine lust.
Of course, you know Julie’s going to come out against coke, that she’ll always be on the side of virtue, empathy, and kindness. You know Buddy’s never going to record a track about how good it feels to fuck around. The Millers have no interest in tweaking their faith. Similarly, their impulse is to exemplify, rather than push against, musical form, and to rekindle emotions that music has kindled in them. They might be the ultimate version of the trad alt-country paradox: Instead of kicking against cliché, it aims for superior clichés. Which explains why their songs, written from within the No Depression set, translate instantly to mainstream country. “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” the lead cut on Cruel Moon, is a textbook haunted house of honky-tonk love. “Broken Things,” a Julie weeper (“So I give these pieces all to you/If you want it you can have my heart”), aims to be elemental and universal: She notes that it was sung at a service after a bombing in Northern Ireland.
At the Bottom Line, the Millers came out with Dylan’s “Wallflower,” Buddy on electric, Julie on acoustic, with an equally middle-aged and surefooted rhythm section. Buddy looks like a guy in the pit crew of a race team, can do anything he wants on guitar, didn’t talk much, and happily twanged in all the right places on stuff like “Looking for a Heartache Like You” and the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Running Wild.” Alone, he’d have become a respected journeyman like his other cowriter, Jim Lauderdale. Julie was a spaz à la her friend Victoria, verging on Buster Keaton when she tried to beat on two precariously situated plastic cans. Also like Williams, she applies a little girl’s voice and cutesiness with disarming self-confidence. Unlike Williams, she’s got a morbid streak that undercuts the placidity of her faith, as when she practically begs to be taken upstairs in “All My Tears,” a bluegrassy stomper on Broken Things that dates back to her Myrrh days. Emmylou Harris, who has the Millers in her current touring band, dueted with each, saying, “Buddy and Julie came into my life and they have become my church.”
Oops, there’s CHRIST again. Where Harris has always believed in elevating country, for better and often worse, the Millers are devout: Julie, whose “Buddy songs” have tart, specific lyrics, breaks fresher ground when she willfully borders on the platitudinous. I almost threw out Broken Things the first time I heard “I Still Cry” (“I’m making flowers out of paper/While darkness takes the afternoon/I know they won’t last forever/But real ones fade away too soon”); live, I had to agree with my plus-one that, given the inevitable cover, we were hearing a megasmash-in-waiting. This Jew ain’t converting nohow, but challenging music appears in the unlikeliest places, and finding one’s affinity with it is at the core of being secular.