RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Musicians Buddy and Julie Miller have been a celebrated husband and wife fixture in Nashville over the last quarter century. But it seemed like their days of making music as a duo were over when a chronic condition caused Julie to stop performing. Now they're back with their first album in a decade. It's called "Breakdown On 20th Ave. South." Jewly Hight reports.
JULIE MILLER: She's here.
JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: (Laughter).
BUDDY MILLER: Come on in.
HIGHT: Guests at the home of Buddy and Julie Miller pass through a living room that doubles as part of a studio and a former kitchen now lined with instruments.
J MILLER: Welcome to the house of no reason.
B MILLER: We live upstairs. And this is all - the downstairs is all for music.
HIGHT: The two members of the Miller household couldn't be more different. Buddy's as stoic as Julie is effusive.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUDDY MILLER SONG, "HOW I GOT TO MEMPHIS")
HIGHT: The contrast was clear when they met in the mid-1970s. Julie was singing in an Austin band, and Buddy auditioned with this song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW I GOT TO MEMPHIS")
B MILLER: (Singing) If you love somebody enough, you'll follow them wherever they go. That's how I got to Memphis.
I sang that for my audition for the band. And she said, don't - no, don't hire him (laughter).
J MILLER: He's too country (laughter).
HIGHT: Julie was more into rock, blues and folk, but that didn't keep the two singers apart. When Buddy moved to New York City, Julie went too. And when she returned to Texas, he followed, and they married. They bounced between other cities and music scenes before settling in Nashville in 1993, where publishers took an interest in Julie's songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL MY TEARS")
J MILLER: (Singing) When I go, don't cry for me, in my father's arms I'll be.
They wanted to sign me to a deal for a lot of money. I was like, are they kidding? No way am I signing (laughter).
B MILLER: She didn't want to connect money to art.
J MILLER: I thought, no, ow, my brain (laughter).
B MILLER: And she didn't want the pressure. And you didn't want the pressure of having to, like, give them 10 songs, even though you could write 10 songs easy.
HIGHT: Julie had tried recording for the Christian market, which didn't really suit her bohemian disposition. Then she and Buddy started making solo albums that found an Americana audience. They'd worked on all those projects together and finally concluded they were meant to be a duo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RIVER'S GONNA RUN")
BUDDY MILLER AND JULIE MILLER: (Singing) I'm going to rock on the water.
J MILLER: (Singing) And dance on the flood.
B MILLER: (Singing) I'm going to lay down with the wind.
J MILLER: (Singing) Lay down and believe like a child.
B MILLER: (Singing) I feel the swell of the tempest.
J MILLER: (Singing) I can feel the passion of a soul.
B MILLER: (Singing) Like there's a storm coming in.
J MILLER: (Singing) I can feel a storm going wild.
Buddy and I - we have separate tastes, but we also have where it combines. And where it combines is where it really happens.
HIGHT: Outside of their collaboration, Buddy put in time playing guitar and singing with Emmylou Harris, who got to know both the Millers well.
EMMYLOU HARRIS: There's just something about the way they are together as a couple, the way they are separately, the way they live their lives, their priorities, the music that they bring that I'm so grateful that they came into my life.
HIGHT: But by the mid-2000s, Julie had withdrawn from performing. She lives with the chronic pain disorder fibromyalgia, and her symptoms had intensified. On top of that, she was grieving her brother's sudden death. The duo was in limbo, so Buddy filled his time producing albums for other artists and touring with Robert Plant.
B MILLER: Instead of me trying to mend the fence, I just split and got into work and then got burned out on work and realized I made a big mistake. I mean, I love all the music I got to work on. They're incredible people, but this is the one I belong with.
HIGHT: Buddy's actions showed Julie that he was listening. One day, she even managed to stop him in his tracks with a spontaneously dreamed-up song.
J MILLER: He was walking out the door (laughter). And I started singing it just off the top of my head. And he turned around and came back in, and he recorded it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GONNA MAKE YOU LOVE ME")
B MILLER AND J MILLER: (Singing) I'm going to make you love me. And I'm going to make it stick. I'm going to make you love me when you've had it and I make you sick.
HIGHT: Many of the songs on Buddy and Julie's first album together in 10 years were captured in the moment without anyone else involved. He lugged recording gear up to her in their living quarters.
J MILLER: Yeah. No, she won't come downstairs. I was like Rapunzel without any hair (laughter).
B MILLER: I think there were just so many records made down here that she wasn't involved in - no bad vibes but just kind of like other things attached to this room that weren't us.
HIGHT: The lyrics came from Julie. She wrote about the outside world's troubles, as she's done throughout her career, but also shared revealing the intimate moments.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IS YOUR FAULT")
J MILLER: (Singing) If I'm happy, you trap me in your invisible cage. When I cry, you want to try to make me turn the page.
B MILLER: That's the song "Everything Is Your Fault In The Whole Wide World."
J MILLER: (Laughter).
B MILLER: Yeah. I mean, I don't come off looking that great in that, but I insisted on that song being on the record.
J MILLER: (Laughter) That was supposed to be funny.
B MILLER: No, it wasn't.
HIGHT: In a partnership as lasting as Buddy and Julie Miller's, the truth can be wrenching and playful at the same time. They make an art out of give and take.
For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IS YOUR FAULT")
B MILLER AND J MILLER: (Singing) Everything...
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