Leading Americana Couple Buddy and Julie Miller Return with First Album Via ‘Ten Years on “Breakdown on Twentieth Avenue South’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Wow! it’s been ten years since we last heard Buddy and Julie Miller on Written in Chalk. The combination of Julie’s serious health issues and Buddy’s in-demand status as producer left most of us wondering whether the Millers would ever record together again. In one sense, although we’ve dearly missed them, their spirit has continued to cast a spell in Americana circles. Husband and wife teams continue to proliferate with the fragile, mischievous not-quite-perfect female voice like Julie and the soulful, grittier male counterpart, like Buddy.  We could assign similarities to The Mastersons, Shovels & Rope, Silver Lake 66, The Truehearts, and others.

Meanwhile Miller collaborated with Robert Plant and Alison Krause, his longtime friend Jim Lauderdale; and produced notable albums by Plant, Solomon Burke, Richard Thompson, Allison Moorer, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, and most recently the soulful duo War & Treaty and emerging Americana artist Ariana Gillis. He’s been the Executive Music Producer of the TV show Nashville and continues to hold down his Sirius XM radio show with Lauderdale (who coincidentally is releasing his own From Another World today).

When the autobiographical title track kicks off the album, it’s that instantly recognizable Millers’ sound that jumps from the speakers. Despite the many duos we have singing today, none of them sound like Buddy and Julie. It’s their unique blend of voices, Buddy’s churning guitar, and Julie’s songwriting that separate them from others.  She wrote 50 or 60 songs for this effort, culled down to a dozen for the album. Both parties admit to wishing it hadn’t taken so long to make this record. Buddy’s schedule, Julie’s health and basic procrastination took hold. Recording began with “I’m Gonne Make You Love Me” in the couple’s bedroom, upstairs from Buddy’s now famous studio. They were so pleased with the emotional stance and punch of the song that Buddy fleshed it out with bass and drums, giving them their first cut. So, they continued to record the demos in what Julie dubbed “Studio B,” deciding they’d do it just as a twosome. There’s both an intimacy and the gritty, rugged rawness long associated with their sound.

“After that first song, we wanted the record to just be us,” Buddy said. “The songs are all Julie’s, and she wanted the sound to be as raw as the lyrics are. She writes directly from her heart to her pen, and she has the sound in her mind. My fingerprints come in as I help her create the sound she wants.” Expounding further, Julie said, “As we worked and I got all excited, I got to where I woke up every morning with a new song in my head. They felt fully conceived, and Buddy helped get that sound from my head and onto this record.”

The title track lays the groundwork for themes of hard-fought affection (“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “Till The Stardust Comes Apart), spiteful anger (“Everything Is Your Fault’), and spiritual sustenance (“Storm of Kisses”) – a combination of madness and love that’s marked all their efforts. There’s Julie’s lonely musing in “Unused Heart” and flat out rock n’ roll in “Underneath the Sky.” There’s acoustic folk in “Thoughts At 2AM.” Mostly, Julie takes lead vocal with Buddy harmonizing and providing the sensitive but mostly thunderous instrumentation. Yet, in “Spittin’ On Fire” they sing in duet and Buddy takes the lead vocal on the ruminating “Secret.” The shifting tempos and the pacing of songs works very well. There are only three tracks where a drummer or drummer and bass are added.

They take on some tough subjects too such as a child forced into combat in the raging “War Child” and the solemnity of the closing “Storm of Kisses” which has an interesting back story. Julie’s only co-writer on the album is her nephew Alasdair MacKenzie, a student at Harvard University. When Alasdair was four, he created a list of song titles. For Julie, the title “Storm of Kisses” immediately stood out. Later, as Julie mourned the death of her younger brother—killed in Austin by a lightning strike—she says God reminded her of her nephew’s song title and comforted her by reminding her brother felt no pain in the moment of his death. Julie came to view the flash of that moment as “a storm of kisses.”  Note: there are two bonus tracks – the quiet piano ballad “Can’t Cry Hard Enough” and a live version of the rocking concert favorite “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast.”

The ten-year hiatus hasn’t diminished anything about the Millers” unique partnership. The songs are as good as ever, Buddy still sings passionately and rips his guitar with determined fury. Julie sings as well as she ever has. This long-overdue reunion apparently marks the beginning of a new chapter.  Why not? Julie’s already written five times as many songs as they used here. It just feels so natural, so meant to be. For many, Buddy and Julie represent the epitome of Americana music – why we became so attracted to it two decades or more ago. “I’m so proud of Julie and these songs,” Buddy said. “She’s still writing, and everything is of such high quality. I feel like we’re on a roll, so why stop?”  Please keep going – restore our musical world order.

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