Album Review: Buddy and Julie Miller – Written in Chalk
It’s barely March, and already there have been multiple serious contenders for 2009′s country music album of the year. Willie and the Wheel may seem poised to run away with the title, but if anything can beat the combination of Nelson and Benson, it’s the new Buddy and Julie Miller album, Written in Chalk. The first original album by the two since 2001′s Buddy & Julie Miller, it’s worth the wait–and is very possibly the best record either of them has done. The eight tracks that Julie penned are some of her strongest songs to date, and Buddy’s guitar work has never sounded better.
Recorded in the couple’s Nashville-based home studio with several guests, at times Written in Chalk feels like you’re eavesdropping on your cool neighbor’s jam session…albeit one that has Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and Robert Plant in attendance. At other times it’s like you’re in a corner booth watching the Millers perform at a sleazy roadhouse in East Texas. The album cycles through various country music subgenres: country blues, country rock, country soul, et al, but—with the exception of one song—manages to sound like a cohesive whole.
Buddy and Julie’s voices are complete opposites; Julie’s voice sounds remarkably like Kasey Chambers, while Buddy has a sandpapery, but not unpleasant, rasp. Each half of the duo performs admirably solo on the record, but when they sing together, somehow the performance becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Case in point: “Gasoline and Matches,” a down and dirty love song made for that sleazy roadhouse mentioned above—and all who frequent such places. Your pulse will thump a bit faster when Buddy and Julie growl “You knock me out, you rock me off my axis/You and me are gasoline and matches.” Its counterpoint is “June,” a beautiful elegy that might occur after the scrappy couple in “Gasoline and Matches” spends the next few decades together. Julie’s little girl voice has never been so plaintive that it is on this track when she sings “I never thought I’d lose you/Or that you’d go ahead of me/But now you rode instead of me on their angel wings/Did the Lord call your name and did you take his hand/To join that family band once again.”
As good as they sing with each other, when the guest stars are thrown into the mix, Buddy and Julie step up their game some more, if such a thing is possible. Robert Plant, wading further into the deep end of the country music swimming pool, duets with Buddy on the old Mel Tillis done-me-wrong tune “What You Gonna Do Leroy.” The song is loose, bluesy, and absolutely a treat to hear, even as the refrain “What you gonna do with a woman like that” gets stuck in your head for days on end. Forget a Led Zeppelin reunion tour: I’d pay good money to hear Plant sing some more country while Miller backs him up on guitar.
The album’s one slight misstep is Julie’s song “Long Time,” a slow jazz-influenced number that clocks in at barely over four minutes, but seems like the longest song on the album. The lyrics are simply heartbreaking, and the song would fit right in on one of Julie’s solo albums, but being sandwiched in between straightup country songs “What You Gonna Do Leroy” and “One Part, Two Part,” only serves to reinforce the song’s misplacement.
Written in Chalk ends with a gorgeous cover of Leon Payne’s “The Selfishness in Man.” The song has been covered very well by numerous country artists including George Jones and bluegrasser Doyle Lawson, but the team of Buddy, Julie, and Emmylou (Buddy’s former boss) might just top them all.
The thing about writing in chalk is that your work disappears with the passage of rain and time. But don’t count on Written in Chalk to fade away any time soon. This is an album for the ages.
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