One of the primary reasons I focus on coversong here at Cover Lay Down is because I believe that covers are a great way to make the process of discovering new artists both comfortable and familiar. Most of the time, whether the organizing principle of a given post is the interpretive work of one singer-songwriter, or a single artists' songbook, this means a focus on popular songs, and less popular artists performing them. After all, you don't need me to introduce you to Bob Dylan, but you're much less likely to have heard Angel Snow's delicate, raw take on Dylan's Meet Me in the Morning.
But for me, the discovery process works the other way, too. When I began collecting covers in earnest as part of the creation of this blog, I started using the "composer" field in iTunes actively; in doing so, I gained the ability to easily cluster songs by songwriter. This not only made it easier to organize songs for our Covered in Folk feature posts -- it also led me to discover artists I might not otherwise have found, had I not been confronted with the fact that many beloved songs I had thought were unrelated originals by different artists shared a common songwriter, and gone looking for more work by that songwriter.
Today, this process bears wonderful fruit: a focus on the interpretive work of a married pair of singer-songwriters who I first encountered through their songs as covered by other artists. They're known better as behind-the-scenes wizards from the country/roots-rock end of American folk music, but they're great performers in their own right, and I think they deserve as much a chance to shine as their songs do. Ladies and Gentlemen: Buddy and Julie Miller.
Texan Julie Miller started singing at sixteen, releasing her first album in 1991; long-time Nashville session guitarist Buddy Miller met her on the road, and soon they were sharing both bed and band. But the singing-songwriting team of Buddy and Julie Miller was truly formed in 1995, when Julie co-wrote songs and contributed vocal talents for Buddy's first solo effort Your Love And Other Lies. Two years later, critical accolades for the release of her major-label debut Blue Pony, which featured Buddy as producer and on multiple instruments, sealed their reputations in the folk and country worlds; since then, the two have become one of the most successful musical husband and wife teams you've never heard of.
You've almost definitely heard Buddy and Julie's session work, though. Both are heavily in demand: Buddy for his production work, vocals, bass, and lead guitarplay, Julie for her vocal harmonies and writing. Between them, they've worked on over a hundred albums, in session with the likes of everyone from Frank Black and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to Mindy Smith and Patty Griffin. Buddy, who served in Emmylou Harris' band for eight years, has earned accolades from bandmates Emmylou and Steve Earle, among others, for his guitarwork and his vocals; meanwhile, Julie's vocal harmony has become the mark of a certain kind of promise for releases from predominantly female folk artists with a particular southern folk/country bent to their sound and their outlook.
But because session work is often invisible to the average listener, in name, at least, Buddy and Julie are probably better known for their work as interpreted by others. Their songs are unmistakable: rich with black and white old-testament imagery, catchy melodies, that particular form of desperate hope and strength common to regional music of proud but dirt-poor community, and a mountain gospel trope which fits well with the typical themes of post-folk country music. As other people's hits and deep cuts, their music has helped bring fame and fortune to a huge set of artists from the country and folk worlds, from core country artists Lee Ann Womack (multiple tracks), The Dixie Chicks (Hole in My Head) and Brooks and Dunn (My Love Will Follow You) to countryfolk Emmylou Harris (All My Tears) and Hank Williams III (Lonesome for You), from Christian rockers Jars of Clay (All My Tears) to bluesman John Mayall (Dirty Water) to straight-up folk artists Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell (see bonus section below).
Though their co-billed album Buddy and Julie Miller was a 2001 Grammy Nominee for Best Contemporary Folk Album, Buddy and Julie Miller are lesser-known as performers in their own right outside the music community. The Millers spend more time on sidelines than center stage; as such, they sometimes come off as session players getting their big break in concert, but they have their moments. I saw them a few years ago at the Green River Festival: Buddy studious, ragged and white-haired, grinning as he hunched over the guitar like a sideman; Julie beside him, smiling, singing a bit too brashly for her voice, her confidence level somewhere between performing spouse and full-blown performer. But the music was memorable in its way -- big and generous, skillfully and unpretentiously presented, clearly studied -- and the songs catchy and fun in the particular manner of rock music sung by folk musicians.
Still, it's the studio where these folks really shine as solo artists. By himself, Buddy Miller favors an electrified roots-rock sound, with skilled guitarwork that runs a full range from driving to atmospheric wail, while Julie leans towards more traditional southern-style singer-songwriter folk fare in the vein of Nanci Griffith or Caroline Herring, produced (by Buddy, mostly) in a folkpop vein. They work with each other, so though nominally some albums are hers, some his, there are usually bits of each of them in the songs. Together, they make a powerful team, both in the way their various talents come together as a single whole, and in the way Julie's sometimes tentative vocals compliment Buddy's rough southern voice -- think a slightly lighter-weight Kasey Chambers with a more intelligible Steve Earle, and you've just about got it.
Here's some of Buddy and Julie Miller's best coverwork, both solo and with others, that you've never heard.
- Buddy Miller: With God On Our Side (orig. Bob Dylan)
(from Universal United House of Prayer)
- Julie Miller: Face of Appalachia (orig. John Sebastian)
(from Blue Pony*)
- Buddy and Julie Miller: Wallflower (orig. Bob Dylan)
(from Buddy and Julie Miller*)
- Buddy and Julie Miller: Paper Thin (orig. John Hiatt)
(from It'll Come To You: The Songs of John Hiatt)
- The Rolling Creekdippers (Buddy and Julie Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Mark Olson, Victoria Williams): In My Hour of Darkness (orig. Gram Parsons)
(from Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons)
- The Chieftains w/ Buddy and Julie Miller: Country Blues (trad.)
(from Down The Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions)
- Cry, Cry, Cry w/ Buddy and Julie Miller and Jay Ungar: Green Pastures (trad.)
(live at Mountain Stage, 1999)
*Look, the point here is to whet your appetite, so you'll buy the stuff; ordinarily, I'd have links here and above to Buddy and Julie's webstore, where you can pick up more of their fully autographed works direct from the source, without dropping most of the profit in the coffers of Big Music. But Buddy usually runs the store, and he's currently on tour with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, so he can't fill orders. And most of Julie's old albums are out of print, while the Millers prepare a "best of the early years" CD.
My recommendation: pick up Universal United House of Prayer NOW, direct from the label, and let that be your turntable goodness for the summer. Then, when you want more, come back to the webstore in August...or head out to your local indie store, where they'll be happy to order whatever they can find for you.
Want more? Of course you do. And given the high recognition factor for the Buddy and Julie Miller songbook, we'd be remiss in not offering you a look at some of their best songs as performed by others. Because the list was so exhaustive, though it was hard not to share Emmylou's version of All My Tears, I've decided to focus on some of our favorite song interpreters in the folkworld: Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, and Lucy Kaplansky, the three folk artists who, together, comprised the short-lived folk supergroup Cry Cry Cry. Today's bonus coversongs may be just the tip of a very big, very wonderful iceberg, but I think you'll find them worthy. (Bonus points: see if you can make out Buddy on one of these covers!)
- Cry, Cry, Cry does By Way of Sorrow
- ...and then does it again, live from Mountain Stage
- Richard Shindell takes on My Love Will Follow You
- Lucy Kaplansky covers...
Previously on Cover Lay Down: