Even without the comfy chairs and floor lamp to set the mood, once Buddy and Julie Miller took the stage Wednesday night at Nashville’s City Winery it was as if they had invited the audience into their living room. Backed by a small group of musicians including Colin Linden on guitar, the couple delivered a brisk and blissful 45-minute set consisting mainly of songs from their recently released album, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South, which takes its name from the street on which their actual living room is situated. Captivating the crowd with humor and sweetness, the Millers offered a glimpse into their collective musical genius, anchored by Buddy’s fervent guitar playing and Julie’s alluring lyrics.
But the night was significant for other reasons — chief among them that this was the couple’s first live performance together in 15 years. Between Buddy’s tireless work on the road with Robert Plant, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and others, and Julie’s subsequent battle with illness and depression following their last public appearance together in 2002, their recorded output as a duo has been limited — and based on the reception they received, sorely missed. Kicking off with the trenchant “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” Julie’s gratitude for the enthusiastic response was evident throughout the nine-song set, which marked, as Buddy noted, “the beginning and the end of our world tour.”
Other songs from the current LP included the title cut, “Spittin’ on Fire,” the romantic “Til the Stardust Comes Apart,” and the endlessly fascinating “Feast of the Dead,” for which Linden put down his guitar to play the exotic and mystifying hurdy-gurdy. Buddy calls it “one of the most terrible sounds in the world.” On this subject, the couple has a definite difference of opinion.
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“I’ve been a hurdy-gurdy fan since the Pogues opened up for Bob Dylan back in L.A. 30 years ago,” Julie said, noting that the sound drew her to follow the instrument while others followed the folk icon. “I was backstage and I heard this sound. They were in the dressing room with a fiddle and a hurdy-gurdy. Bob Dylan went [one] direction but I went that direction.”
Introducing Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance,” Buddy picked up a smaller guitar that could be mistaken for a child’s toy instrument. “It looks like you got it at the airport,” Julie quipped.
As the all-too-short set drew to a close, the pair sang a touching version of what is perhaps Julie’s best-known song, “All My Tears.” From her 1999 LP, Broken Things, the song has since been covered by dozens of artists including Emmylou Harris, who was among those in attendance for the special event. Introducing a rollicking Wilbert Harrison classic, “Let’s Stick Together,” Julie noted it was a selection she was forcing her husband into, adding, “It’s really good to get my way.” “I’ll do whatever you want,” he replied. That also held for a particular audience member who had requested “Hole in My Head,” a tune Buddy co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale that the Dixie Chicks cut for their 10-million-selling album Fly.
In addition to Buddy and Julie Miller, the night’s lineup included Lauderdale, introducing songs from his just-released From Another World album, and singer-songwriter Lillie Mae. The concert will be heard on an upcoming episode of Miller and Lauderdale’s Buddy & Jim Radio Show on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country.