It certainly wouldn’t be accurate to say that Buddy and Julie Miller have bad luck. After all, each of them has had wonderful career as songwriter and performer. They’ve each had fine solo albums. A variety of country artists have had success with their songs, including Lee Ann Womack and Dierks Bentley.
Buddy has played guitar on tour with Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and more recently Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and he’s produced albums in the studio he built in their Nashville home for Allison Moorer, Solomon Burke, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Together, Buddy and Julie have played inspirational shows all over the country.
But back to that luck thing. Written In Chalk (New West Records) is only the couple’s second album together. The first, Buddy and Julie Miller, was released exactly one week after September 11, 2001. Then, just days before this new album was released, Buddy was admitted to a hospital in Baltimore complaining of chest pains. He needed immediate bypass surgery, and though he’s coming along fine now, he is temporarily unable to go on the road to support the new album. Buddy and Julie are people of faith, and it’s their faith that has sustained them through setbacks and success.
This was supposed to be Julie’s next solo album, her first since 1999’s Broken Things. Most of the new record was finished, when her brother died tragically, causing the recording process to come to a halt. They tried to get back to it, but it wasn’t working. Meanwhile Buddy was working on his own Grammy-nominated Universal House of Prayer, and producing other artists. Finally, the circumstances were right for Written In Chalk to come together. At least two of the songs on the new album are songs that were originally intended for Julie’s solo album, songs that I heard her perform as long as five years ago.
As you might expect, Written In Chalk reflects the sorrow that the Millers have had to cope with in recent years. Julie in particular has a knack for crafting the most heartbreakingly beautiful songs that contain not one ounce of self pity. That’s great songwriting, and it’s especially evident on the magnificent “Don’t Say Goodbye,” a tribute to her late brother that features harmony vocals by Patty Griffin. Julie is also featured on a lovely tribute to June Carter Cash called, simply, “June.”
“Long Time” is something new for Julie. I’ve heard her sing rock, country, and ballads, but this is a pure torch song that would be right at home in a film-noir detective movie. It’s all rain soaked city streets at night, and features a nice muted trumpet solo by Kami Lyle.
Buddy Miller has always had a keen awareness of that sacred place in popular music where country music and southern soul come together, and he demonstrates that knowledge on Dee Ervin’s “One Part, Two Part”, featuring Regina McCrary on vocals, and on the powerful “Chalk,” where he’s joined by Patty Griffin. Of particular interest is the entertaining “What You Gonna Do Leroy,” an old Lefty Frizzell song that features Robert Plant on vocals, and Stuart Duncan on violin, and was allegedly recorded in a dressing room in Toronto during the Raising Sand tour.
For me, the songs that Buddy and Julie do together are the most fun. The leadoff track “Ellis County” is a paean to old fashioned values, and is followed by “Gasoline and Matches,” a song which harkens back to their duet on “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go,” on Buddy’s Cruel Moon album, and will give Julie another opportunity to bang on a liberated hotel trash can during live performances.
It was December of 2001. I was at the legendary Bottom Line in New York City to see Buddy and Julie Miller. It wasn’t even three months after 9/11, and the club sat in the shadow of where the towers used to stand. To say that the audience that night was still shaken would be an understatement. There sat 400 people who, more than anything, needed hope. It was one thing for people all over the world to say “we are all New Yorkers,” but it was another thing to actually be a New Yorker in those dark days. There was still a terrible smell in the air downtown.
What followed was some sort of magic as performed by Buddy and Julie Miller. It was the sort of evening that makes you understand why music is the most personal of the arts, and touches your soul most directly. That night we were healed. By the music. By Julie’s words that let us know that the whole world really was with us. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.
It’s nice to have Buddy and Julie back, together, on an album again. It’s been a long time, but well worth the wait. There’s sadness here, but always tempered with hope, and there’s the joy that comes with making music organically. Written In Chalk is the best album that 2009 has produced so far.