Buddy and Julie Miller: “Written in Chalk”
How fitting that Buddy and Julie Miller open their long-awaited Written in Chalk with “Ellis County,” an Appalachian-tinged ballad that finds the couple in straightforwardly nostalgic mode, pining for days gone by when “if we ate, then we had to grow it” and “all we could afford was laughter.” Never mind the resonances that such a song might have during these perilous days of economic uncertainty; the song might as well be the couple’s musical mission statement. It’s not that they’ve revivalists, or even that they often peddle nostalgia as blatantly as they do here; it’s just that the two have always preferred the simplicity of soulful American music idioms over anything that smacks of being hip or contemporary.
Providing the opposite bookend to this fine album is “The Selfishness of Man,” Buddy’s tearful duet with Emmylou Harris, a mournful tune that finds the two country vets longing to replace humankind’s inner darkness with childlike faith and wonder. It’s a wish they know will never come true– at least not on this side of Paradise– but it’s something far purer and more meaningful than mere idealism. It’s a prayer, humble and hopeful and real.
The album’s sequencing is a work of subtle genius; with those two songs at either end of the spectrum, the tracks that fall between them– the Millers’ usual songs of love gone wrong, of faith and heartache– become an eloquent dialogue, an album about complicated relationships, made by a husband and a wife who believe in their secret hearts that love is really very simple. Naturally, there’s a great deal of sorrow on this album, to the extent that it’s almost a breakup album– a feeling enhanced by the fact that, oddly, Buddy and Julie sing together on only a few cuts, spending half of the album alternating between solo cuts and duets with other artists, hopefully not a case of art imitating life. But no, it’s not a breakup album, at least not totally; it’s a profoundly human and profoundly spiritual inquiry into sadness, joy, faith, and carnal love made stronger by trying times and hard work.
Country music, at its core, is really just soul music, a connection made explicit in the singalong “One Part, Two Part,” and implicit everywhere else; whether singing about human relationships or their own Christian faith, Buddy and Julie have never been much for complicated metaphor, instead trading in traditional songcraft that blurs the line between sentimentality and down-to-earth sincerity. Occasionally this makes the Millers sound a little maudlin, especially on Julie’s weepy ballads, of which there is maybe one too many here, but, when they’re at their best, their songs resound with beauty and real joy– and, on this record, they’re almost always at their best. There’s a spunky little romp called “Gasoline and Matches,” an ode to intimacy that stands as the most fun and flirty track they’ve ever cut together, and a bluesy roots-rocker called “Memphis Jane” that fuses Julie’s innocence and sweet storytelling with Buddy’s grit and guitar mastery.
These songs, where the couple sings together, will likely be the ones most cherished by fans, but splitting up for some of these songs allows the two to take their music into previously unexplored avenues. Buddy gets to duet with Robert Plant on a gleeful blues rollick, “What You Gonna Do Leroy.” Julie gets to do a jazz ballad, singing alongside muted trumpet and twinkling piano on “Long Time.” Patty Griffin and Regina McCrary show up on two songs apiece, providing soulful harmonies.
In terms of musical and emotional terrain, this is the Millers’ most varied and complete set yet, even more so then their roots-rock duet album from 2001, and their combination of muscle and heart is as winning as ever, but what matters most, of course, are the songs, and it’s here that the Millers prove why they’re national treasures. Too country for country radio, Buddy and Julie have always written from a place of honesty and poetry that make them peerless. Sorrow and gladness, faith and desire meet again and again on this record, and the sparks of beauty it creates makes Written in Chalk a timeless piece, an album to be lived with and treasured.