Album Review: Buddy and Julie Miller – Written in Chalk

Juli Thanki | March 9th, 2009

Buddy and Julie MillerIt’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.

5 Stars

2 Pings

  1. [...] also heart-tugging as they weave together just as effortlessly as the fiddle I mentioned earlier. It has been noted that the hubby-wife duo’s vocals are reminiscent of the makers of my favorite album of 2008, [...]
  2. [...] also heart-tugging as they weave together just as effortlessly as the fiddle I mentioned earlier. It has been noted that the hubby-wife duo’s vocals are reminiscent of the makers of my favorite album of 2008, [...]
  1. Jordan Stacey
    March 9, 2009 at 9:03 am

    Hmm the year I don’t have as much money to spend and there’s a bunch of albums I’m looking to pick up, Looks like I’ll be eating instant noodles for the next few months.

  2. Drew
    March 9, 2009 at 9:30 am

    Yep, I listened to this over the weekend… definitely a fan. I’ll have to give a listen to some of their earlier work.

  3. Baron Lane
    March 9, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Great review of ta great album Juli, Though I do take exception(you know that’s how I roll) to your assertion that Written in Chalk is a contender for the “country music album of the year.” Perhaps true in some dream world where country music is broad and elastic enough to encompass such courageous and amazing talent, but this world ain’t it (I doubt Willie and the Wheel will fit that mold either.)

    Roots or Americana album of the year, absolutely. Country music in it’s current sorry state? nope.

  4. Kelly
    March 9, 2009 at 10:20 am

    I have loved what I have heard so far from this disc. Since I enjoyed reading Ben’s review of the Willie and The Wheel snooze-fest more than listening to it, its not as close of a race for “early album of the year” for me…

  5. Leeann Ward
    March 9, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Well, Juli, it’s on the list of album reviews that have been assigned to me. If you say it’s good, I’ve learned to trust your judgment by now.

    Kelly, so sad about Willie and the Wheel… At least we still have Kasey & Shane…

  6. nm
    March 9, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    “Julie’s voice sounds remarkably like Kasey Chambers”

    Surely it’s the other way around, especially since Kasey Chambers used to sound like Lucinda Williams but changed for her latest album.

    I do just love this album, though, including Julie’s jazz turn.

  7. Kelly
    March 9, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    NM: When did Chambers voice sound like Lucinda’s?

    Leeann: You’re right, we still have Rattlin’ Bones. The truth is, I didnt dislike the Willie/Wheel album as much as I am just not a fan of Western Swing in general, for wahtever reason…I really wanted to like what i heard and just didnt….

  8. nm
    March 9, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    The first US tour she did, years back, she sounded just like Lucinda. Which was kind of disconcerting, since she was performing a couple of Lucinda’s songs.

  9. Kelly
    March 9, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Their voices are so amazingly different from one another, I just cant picture that. Many of her earlier works bares a resemblence to Williams work, as she has cited Williams as a hero of hers, but I just cant wrap my head around her voice sounding anything like Williams voice as they are both remarkable but in differnt ways (to me at least)…

  10. Leeann Ward
    March 9, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Williams’ voice always sounded more husky to me than Chambers’.

  11. nm
    March 9, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Kelly, it was weird. Anyway, my real point was simply that Julie Miller was sounding like herself before anyone had heard of Kasey Chambers, so if it were me, I would compare them the other way round.

    And I apologize for derailing the thread from the awesomenes of Written in Chalk, which I don’t for one instant dispute.

  12. Occasional Hope
    March 10, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    I think I’m going to have to give this some time to grow on me, beacuse at the moment I’m not enjoying it as much as their previous duet work, or Buddy’s solo records. I just don’t think I like Julie’s voice much, and this album seems to feature her upfront much more. But the songs are good so it may work its way into my heart if I give it a chance. I love the album packaging, btw.

  13. Robert Trigloff
    April 2, 2009 at 12:25 am

    The Julie Miller focused portions of the record are spectacular and the quality of the recording is high it really made my Vienna’s pop. Yet to say it is Julies best work is hardly worth disputing there is so much musical depth in her previous work (not to mention style difference) it is hard to compare those works with these rather light offerings. though it has tons of soul and I love Buddy’s tremendous ability to transfere some swing into anything.
    It is not like the Julie that was. But she probably isnt that Julie anymore.good record compared to modern country stuff it’s probably brilliant but not Julies best.

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