Buddy & Julie Miller – ‘Written In Chalk’ (review)
It’s tough for me to review Buddy & Julie Miller’s new album Written In Chalk outside of the context of their larger body of work, which includes five Buddy solo albums, two Julie solo records (not including her previous Contemporary Christian albums), and a self-titled duo album. Though Written In Chalk is only their second co-billed album, everything with the Miller name on it since Julie’s last CCM album Orphans & Angels has more or less been a joint effort, with Julie providing much of the songwriting muscle and Buddy handling the production and guitar duties. Every single one of these albums have been recorded in the living room setting of their home studio, with a stable of hyper-talented musicians who have become a tightly-knit extension of the Miller family.
The beginning for me can be traced to Buddy’s second Hightone album Poison Love, which was released while Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball held me thoroughly in its grip. Buddy would go on to play guitar in Emmylou’s band Spyboy for the better part of decade, the same span of time that produced the bulk of Buddy and Julie’s recent output, particularly their albums for the Hightone label which came in rapid succession. Poison Love quickly led me back to Buddy’s Your Love & Other Lies and Julie’s Blue Pony, and from that point forward, I’ve been a very big fan of the couple’s work (in case you hadn’t noticed).
The couple’s harmonies are as natural and instinctive as those of Gram Parsons and Emmylou, a comparison that has been made many times over. Buddy’s instinct for classic country and Southern soul music somehow combines with Julie’s witchy-woman persona to create something entirely their own. In many ways, Buddy’s no-frills sensibilities run counter to Julie’s naturalistic imagery, but they always manage to meet each other halfway. They sing Appalachian ballads with as much conviction as they do a Pops Staples tune. One generally assumes that making records requires a certain amount of ego, but if the Millers have any, it’s difficult to detect. There is guilelessness to their records that belies the sheer amount of talent on display.
A switch to New West Records coincided with personal and physical difficulties in Julie’s life, and Written In Chalk is only the second Miller album for the label, following Buddy’s 2004 release Universal United House Of Prayer. Since about that time, Julie has quietly disappeared from public view, a development not likely to change anytime soon (she is notably absent from the promotional materials for Written In Chalk). But just seeing her name on the cover of this album is a welcome surprise, and hearing her in such fine form is heartening, to say the least.
The first voice you hear on Written In Chalk is that of longtime drummer Brady Blade, a laugh followed quickly by the counting off of beats. Larry Campbell’s fiddle answers the call before Buddy’s acoustic guitar introduces the song proper. “Ellis County” is among the finest duets Buddy and Julie have recorded, and the song transcends its obvious nod to nostalgia (Julie’s family is from Ellis County, TX) by focusing on the simplicity of life without material comforts, a sentiment with particular relevance. As always, Julie’s songwriting is deceptive in its directness, but she knows just when to throw in a curveball chord change or two for an emotional punch. Pulling punches is not something one associates with the songs of Julie Miller (she writes nearly every original song on the record), which can be almost disconcerting in their nakedness.
“Gasoline and Matches” is a sly nod to combustible romance and will lead many to believe there is more to the Millers’ marriage than simplistic, doting affection. Similarly, the first of Julie’s ballads “Don’t Say Goodbye” will leave some listeners wondering about the stability of their relationship (though it’s worth noting this is familiar territory for the Millers). Still, few write or sing about heartbreak as convincingly as Julie Miller. It’s part of her unique gift that she seems so quirky and upbeat in public but has such a open connection to the darkness of the soul. Witness the disc’s centerpiece “Chalk”, which is brought home by Buddy with a wrenching harmony by Patty Griffin.
Interestingly, despite its co-billing, Written In Chalk often sounds like a solo record from either Buddy or Julie. Buddy shares vocals with guests on the album’s three covers, not the least of which is a gritty version of Mel Tillis’ “What You Gonna Do Leroy” with none other than Robert Plant (Miller was the guitarist for Plant and Alison Krauss on their recent tour). Regina McCrary, a key player on Buddy’s last album Universal United House Of Prayer, stops by on two tracks. And Emmylou Harris closes the album in grand fashion on Leon Payne’s devastating “The Selfishness Of Man,” a sterling example of Buddy’s ability to pluck obscure gems for his records. Julie grabs the spotlight for a handful of tracks, and her vocals achieve new heights with the smoky, almost jazzy “A Long, Long Time.”
But of course, it’s the duets that seal the deal. “Smooth” (aka “Memphis Jane”) is a slithering snake of a song, that shows off the couple’s multiple talents (especially Buddy’s razor sharp guitar leads). And “June” is a tribute of sorts to Johnny and June Carter Cash, appropriate since many fans see parallels in the Millers. Though the album was reportedly – and obviously – pulled together from multiple sessions, it hangs together remarkably well, serving as a rather concise overview of the Millers’ body of work. It lacks the thematic cohesion of, say, Universal United House Of Prayer, but in its place is a loose charm that sounds carefully crafted without feeling overworked. In short, Written In Chalk ranks among the best of Buddy and Julie’s work, and that is high praise, indeed.
It’s worth mentioning that a small cloud hangs over the release of this album, as Buddy Miller was forced to undergo emergency triple-bypass surgery less than two weeks ago. There is no more tireless presence in the world of Americana, and hopefully his recovery will mirror that of one of his heroes, Bob Dylan. But even if Buddy Miller never recorded or produced another record, his contribution to the world of music – my world of music, especially – would be enshrined forever. But I have a feeling that Written In Chalk is just the latest, not the last, entry in a body of work unmatched by just about anyone else.
(Written In Chalk will be released March 3 on New West Records. This review can also be found over at my blog Houston Ramblings.)