Buddy & Julie Miller,
Written in Chalk
(New West, 2009)

If you are only a casual fan of the country or Americana genres, you might not have heard of Buddy and Julie Miller, but there is no doubt that the performers in your music library have, and there is a fair probability that Buddy or Julie appear in the liner notes of a number of your favorite albums.

Buddy has toured and recorded with an array of contemporary country music royalty, including Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Jimmy Dale Gilmour, Lucinda Williams and, most recently, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their Raising Sand tour. Julie has provided songs to an equally impressive list of stars, including Brooks & Dunne, The Dixie Chicks, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack and Jars of Clay. Between them, Buddy and Julie have recorded 14 albums, but have recorded only two of those as duet performers. The most recent of those duet albums, Written in Chalk, was released in February of this year to critical praise and commercial indifference.

The praise is not surprising, but the speed at which this album vanished from the charts is absolutely perplexing. This is the best country/Americana release of the year, hands down: authentic music made by authentic people. This is old-time music that sounds like it was made the old-time way, in a living room, with a group of friends gathered around the farmhouse piano while assorted instrumentalists line the walls around the singers. And what a stellar array of "old friends" have stopped by for this particular sing-along: Robert Plant, Patty Griffin, Larry Campbell and Emmylou Harris, among many others! But no matter the stature of the guest, the figures always at the center of the room are Buddy and Julie, conducting an impromptu country orchestra through a collection of songs that capture the mood of an American social fabric frayed at the edges, torn in spots, but not beyond repair or redemption.

This is an album of many moods, with many spots of humor and joy, though as with our times, darkness lurks around every corner. "Memphis Jane" is slinky honky-tonk cautionary tale where a bummed cigarette paves a personal road to Hell. Their haunting cover of George Jones' "The Selfishness in Man" finds the singers watching children drawing pictures of birds and apple trees only to pause at a horrible thought: "and to think those tiny fingers might become a killer's hand." "June" is Julie's poignant tribute to one of her most beloved muses, June Carter Cash, written the very night she received news of her mentor's passing: "Like a true heaven's daughter, darlin', you brought me water for my soul." The rollicking "Gasoline & Matches" is a winking tribute to their own passionate, and occasionally volatile, marriage of 20-plus years.

The standout track is "Ellis County," a call for a simpler time with a repeated refrain of "Take me back again." "Take me back," Buddy sings, "when times were hard but we didn't know it / If we ate it, we had to grow it." Julie joins him in the second stanza, "Take me back where there was nothin' left to throw out / And there was a light that wouldn't go out." And they trade off thereafter, a poignant catalogue of all that has been lost in our mad dash to this so-called modern world of bigger, better, faster, easier living. The grass isn't always greener, they remind us, on the other side of the future. For at its heart, this is an album of loss: lost loved ones, lost ideals, a lost America. The song that gives the album its name, "Chalk," encapsulates both our lives and times: "All our words are written down in chalk / Out in the rain on the sidewalk."

So I repeat: This is the best country/roots/Americana/whatever-you-want-to-call-it album of the year. If you're among the music fans who made Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand a blockbuster and you have caught yourself wishing that more people out there made more albums like that, well, those people are out there, and Buddy and Julie Miller are among the best of them.

review by
Edward Whitelock

12 December 2009

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