Like any newly arrived musician from out of town, the 25-year-old Buddy Miller spent most of his first year in Austin scouting the scene and looking for work. Everything he had heard in New Jersey about the Texas capital’s mid-’70s scene and its uncanny blend of traditional country and progressive folk-rock proved true. The town was brimming with hot pickers, smart songwriters and spellbinding singers, but the person who impressed him the most was a 20-year-old beauty named Julie Griffin, a soprano who sang as if there were no filter between her heart and her mouth.
On Sept. 22, 2023, Buddy and Julie Miller released their fifth duo album, In the Throes, but the married couple have collaborated on nearly every album either one has made over the past 47 years. Though the married couple has lived in Nashville since 1993, all the music they’ve made contains an echo of their first encounter in Texas.
Julie was a Texas native, born and raised in the small town of Waxahachie until age 9, when the family moved to Austin. She spent much of her adolescence sitting on the cement floor at the Armadillo World Headquarters observing the budding and blossoming of “Cosmic Cowboy” music, and soon she wanted to do it herself. Someone heard her singing Gram Parsons’ “Grievous Angel” and hired her for what she calls “the worst band that ever lived.” But the band’s guitarist Ben Cocke was forming a new group with singer-songwriter Patterson Barrett, and they asked Julie to join.
The band was called Partners in Crime, and Julie and Patterson were soon a couple. Buddy, playing with rockabilly legend Ray Campi and honky-tonkers Doug Seegers and Darrell McCall, would see the Partners whenever he could. When Cocke left, Buddy grabbed not only the guitar slot but also the spare bedroom in Patterson and Julie’s tiny bungalow (next door to Butch Hancock).
It was a tense situation: Patterson and Julie were drifting apart, Buddy was infatuated with Julie, Patterson was falling in love with his future wife, Julie was swinging between up and down moods, and everything was in limbo. Buddy played on one track for the band’s first album and on all of the band’s second, unreleased album.
“I had a sense of harmony,” Julie explains, “and it was so much fun to do it with Patterson and Buddy in front of people. I know Patterson like the back of my hand; we went through a lot together. Then Buddy joined the band, and he was so incredible.”
“On stage, it was the Patterson and Julie Show,” Patterson says now, “and Buddy was the guitar player who occasionally sang. Even then, he was a great singer. Neither one of them was writing, which is ironic because that’s what they’re known for now. Julie was very sexy and charismatic on stage, and she was encouraged to emphasize that. That, on top of a rough childhood, gave her every reason to be screwed up. If she hadn’t been reborn with all that Christian stuff, she’d probably have died a long time ago.”
“I heard Partners in Crime,” Buddy recalls, “and they were great. I thought they could go places, and I wanted to play with them. I liked Pat’s songs, and I loved Julie’s singing. She had a lot of heart in her voice. But when I got a gig at the Lone Star Cafe in 1979 opening for Delbert McClinton, I saw a country-music scene was developing there. They weren’t making records in Austin, but they were in New York. So Julie and I moved up on Jan. 1, 1980.”
Incredibly enough, Buddy, Julie and Patterson have remained good friends in the four-and-a-half decades since. There’s no better sign of their bond than the way Patterson convinced Julie’s aging mom, Dolly, to move from Waco to Nashville in 2014. Buddy and Julie had been trying to persuade her without success, but Patterson spent nine months reminding Dolly that he was going to pick her up on Labor Day and drive her to Nashville for an extended visit. He even lived with Dolly in the house across the street from Buddy and Julie for several months.
Patterson’s enjoyable new album, I Just Can’t Call It Quits, features Buddy singing on a song, “I’m Pretending,” written by Buddy and Julie for Buddy’s first solo album. Lubricated by Gene Elders, George Strait’s fiddler, this new version is more of a dancehall two step than the shuffle Buddy recorded. The album’s title track reflects the determination that keeps Patterson at the musician’s life. Still spending most of his time in Austin, he produces artists such as Stephanie Urbina Jones and occasionally joins Buddy on the annual Cayamo Cruise or the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.
“As I sing on the album’s last song, ‘Just a Moment,’” he says, “I’ve gotten to the point where I realize I’m not going to be perfect the whole night. So I try to focus on the special moments, that short time when it feels like everything’s right. I’ve expanded that concept to relationships. Maybe it won’t be perfect all the time, so you hold on to the moment. Even if the singing isn’t spot-on, the feeling can be just as strong.”
The new Buddy and Julie album, In the Throes, reflects a similar search for moments of grace. Like a lot of married couples, they’ve struggled to find the right balance between time spent at work out in the world and time spent with loved ones at home. One’s family is important, but so is one’s career, and it’s difficult to keep the see-saw from bumping up and down. It was challenging enough when Buddy and Julie were touring together—either as part of Steve Earle & the Dukes or as a duo — but it became even more so when she retired from the road due to her fibromyalgia, a nerve disease of chronic pain.
Buddy kept getting offers too good to refuse: music director for Emmylou Harris, the Americana Awards Show and the TV show Nashville, lead guitarist in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, curator for a stage at Hardly Strictly, co-host with Jim Lauderdale of The Buddy & Jim Show on SiriusXM Radio, co-bandleader with Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz and Marc Ribot of the Majestic Silver Strings, and producer for albums by Soloman Burke, Richard Thompson, the Wood Brothers, Patty Griffin, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and many more.
“I’m so lucky to have had so many great opportunities come my way,” Buddy admits, “and I took advantage of them. I love playing in front of people, but what I love most is playing with other musicians. So don’t get me wrong; I do love my work. But Julie never wants me to leave. She’s fragile. She shut down for a long time when I was taking everything that came my way. I like that she put that song ‘Everything is Your Fault’ on the last record. I’ll take that.”
On the title tune from the new album, Julie sings, “How can I get your train to stop before it goes?” over a stomping, garage-rock track. “Everybody wants to see you,” she complains, “but I don’t care if they do. I should feel guilty, but I don’t.” Julie also wrote “I’ll Never Let It Down,” but Buddy sings the trad-country, heartbreak ballad. When he sings, “You won’t come out your door, and you won’t let me in; [you] say we’ll be together, but I wonder when,” it’s ambiguous whether it’s the knocking husband talking to the reclusive wife or the left-behind wife talking to the absent husband.
“At this point, I know what’s important,” Buddy declares. “I’m turning stuff down, production offers. I was on the road since I was 19, and the inside of a bus is no longer alluring. Honestly, I don’t even like to go down to a studio anymore. I’ll sing and play on my friends’ records, but only if I can do it remotely. I have two parents here who aren’t doing well, and my sister and I take care of them. Julie’s mom is in memory care. My mom’s not much better.”
The album’s opening cut, “You’re My Thrill,” is a positive love song, but Julie sings the lyrics to a melancholy blues. She refers to both physical pain and her metaphysical pain on the song, “The Painkillers Ain’t Workin’.” Over a buzzing, psych-raga guitar riff and a baritone harmony from the Millers’ old Austin friend Gurf Morlix, Julie sings, “I’ve been biting this bullet so long I’m gonna break my teeth / Feels like the bed I’m on has fire underneath.” As unnerving as that number is, the following track, a honky-tonk ballad, is even more disturbing. Buddy sings that he’s been crying so much he might as well get a “Tattooed Tear” on his cheek.
“I remember coming up with that phrase, ‘tattooed tears,’” Julie says, “and thinking, ‘Alliteration is good.’ I seldom get out of the house, and I’ve never seen a tattooed tear; I’ve only heard about them. Buddy told me people would know what I was talking about. I’ve lived long enough to watch friends go through all kinds of situations. I can put myself in their shoes and feel their emotions. The songs get more poignant when Buddy gets hold of them. It’s harder for men to express feelings, so it works better when they do.”
Though Buddy has an enviable track record as a songwriter, all the songs but one on the new album are credited to Julie alone. After a long dry spell, she started writing a lot right before the 2019 duo album, Breakdown on 20th Avenue, and that productivity redoubled during the pandemic. By the end of 2022, Buddy realized they had a large pool of Julie songs to choose from, and they should make an album.
“Julie had the songs,” Buddy explains. “She tried to pull me in on them, but I felt like this was her record, and I wanted to stay out of the way. I didn’t want to insert myself where it’s not needed. This was Julie’s thing, even though I sang a lot on it. It happened really fast once we started. The song that triggered it for me, ‘We’re Leavin’’’ came from a gospel album we were working on with Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams and Victoria Williams, after Larry almost died from this terrible case of Covid. That song turned the key for me; I kept singing it, which is a good sign. And the other ones I was drawn to were her songs.”
The one song Julie didn’t write alone is “Don’t Make Her Cry,” which is credited to Julie, her good friend Regina McCrary and Regina’s former employer, Bob Dylan. Regina was one of the backing singers hired for Dylan’s Slow Train Coming tour. When the show stopped in Nashville, Regina’s father, the Fairfield Four’s Sam McCrary, met Dylan backstage and advised Dylan to take care of Regina. “Don’t make her cry,” the elderly gospel singer cautioned.
That phrase stuck with Regina, and she wrote some lyrics to go with it. Dylan added some more, and he advised her to send the words to Buddy to add some music. Buddy was flummoxed by the task, and he turned it over to Julie.
“It was a kind of word salad,” Julie says, “all over the place. I actually had to edit a little and add a little. Only then I could write the music. Those Christian records Bob made in the ’70s and ’80s changed my life. Six months later, Buddy came back to me, and we’ve followed Jesus ever since. All these years later, for Bob Dylan to let us write a song with him brought it full circle.”
Slow Train Coming was released in 1979, and by 1980 Buddy and Julie were playing in New York as the Buddy Miller Band alongside Larry Campbell, Karl Himmel (drummer for Dylan, Neil Young, J.J. Cale and many more) and Lincoln Scheiffer (Larry’s bassist). Buddy was also playing with Jim Lauderdale, John Leventhal, Kinky Friedman and more in a progressive-country scene that had inexplicably blossomed in Manhattan. Meanwhile, Julie’s mood swings continued.
“I was a very desperate person,” Julie recalls. “We were living in New York, and there were so many people. Where are they going? What are they doing? What are we doing? I started wondering about all these questions. I went to bookstores looking for answers, but I didn’t find them. I went to a self-help group, and they said, ‘Look within.’ I looked within and found a 2-year-old screaming. It was only when I listened to those records with Bob and Regina that I found an answer.
“I wasn’t too much of a fan beforehand. Bob’s records were in the houses I lived in; I just wondered why he didn’t enunciate better. But just the fact that Bob Dylan needed Jesus, that shocked me right there. ‘If he needs Jesus,’ I thought, ‘I really need Jesus.’ A psychiatrist asked me, ‘Julie, if you had three wishes, what would they be?’ I said, ‘I only have one wish, to know something is true, true for me and for everyone.’”
The Buddy Miller Band was in upstate New York in 1981, when the guys decided to go see a movie, and Julie decided to take a walk. She saw a church with a cross on it and walked inside an empty sanctuary. She opened a hymnal to the song, “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus.” A man walked in and invited her to a revival meeting that evening. She resisted because the band had a gig that night. But eventually, she decided the revival was more important.
At that gathering, she sang “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus.” The next day she was on a plane to her mother Dolly’s home in Waco. Dolly’s friends told Julie about a bible school in East Texas led by the Agape Force. Before long Buddy showed up to join the camp. In the band left behind in New York, John Leventhal and Shawn Colvin replaced Buddy and Julie.
Once again Buddy and Julie had reached a turning point in their lives, and once again it had happened in Texas. They’d follow the Agape group to Takoma, Washington, and San Francisco. In the latter, Julie started writing songs for children’s gospel records. When the couple joined their old pal Lauderdale in Los Angeles, Julie got a contract to make records with a top Christian-pop label, Myrrh Records. Buddy learned how to produce during those four solo gospel albums by Julie. Eventually they moved to Nashville, where they could afford a house.
Though they wound up recording secular music both individually and jointly for the indie-roots labels HighTone and New West, the echo of their Christian beliefs can be detected in their songs about romantic relationships and social issues. But this was a different kind of Christianity than one usually sees on the newscasts. This is a spiritual faith inspired by the “good trouble” of Civil Rights leader John Lewis (the subject of the new album’s song “The Last Bridge You Will Cross”) and by an antipathy to violence (as on the previous album’s “War Child”).
And those songs contain echoes of their Texas origins as well — in the music as earthy as dancehalls and juke joints and in the words as cosmic as cowboys and poets.
Cover photo by Jeff Fasano, courtesy New West Records