Album Review: Buddy & Julie Miller, 'Breakdown on 20th Ave. South'

by Kim Ruehl (@kimruehl), Folk Alley

In 2009, Buddy and Julie Miller released Written in Chalk—a stunning collection of deeply, almost uncomfortably honest songwriting, intuitive instrumentation, and tight harmonies. It was not their first duo album, but it was easily one of the finest Americana recordings of that decade and earned the couple plenty of attention.

A decade has passed since then, however, with Buddy Miller becoming one of the most in-demand bandmates in Nashville. He did a turn with Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, put out his own albums, took a job as music supervisor on the television show, Nashville. And meanwhile his wife, the exquisite songwriter with the hauntingly sweet voice, missed him and wrote him a song: “You’re gonna love me even when you think you won’t / You’re gonna love me even when you think you don’t.”

According to their press release, the song, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” resonated with Buddy so much that he stole up to a bedroom in their house and laid it down on tape. He added Julie’s vocals and some accompaniment and called it a day. The entirety of the album, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South, was recorded in this intimate way and the result is a raw, emotional whisper in your ear. It’s a stirring series of confessions and declarations, worries and fears, longing for resolution.

Julie Miller’s songs are heavy on romantic love but also veer toward ruminations on personal freedom, spiritual wonder, and world events. (“War Child” feels particularly timely and poignant to anyone watching the news: “War child no one knows who you are / War child you have wandered so far…”)

Each of the album’s dozen tracks is augmented by Buddy’s intuitive guitar work and his producer’s ear for bringing a song to its full potential.

“Spittin’ on Fire” is an easy highlight. Its dark, twisty, muddy guitar solos are heavy on the treble and punctuated by unexpected but perfectly timed hand claps. All of this is pulled forward by a snare and tambourine so supportive, you barely notice their presence.

Another shining moment is “Storm of Kisses,” which Julie notes is a title her nephew came up with when he was four. Years later her brother, that boy’s father, was struck by lightning and killed instantly. Julie pulled back out the title “Storm of Kisses” and turned it into a tribute to her brother. (“The cowboy we loved never meant to cause any pain. / He just never knew when to come in out of the rain.”)

The heartbreak here and elsewhere is palpable. But across their too-few releases, that’s always been how the Millers roll. Even if we have to wait another decade for their next recording, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South, is enough to carry us through.

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Breakdown on 20th Ave. South is available via New West Records now - HERE.

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