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Buddy Miller: Written in Chalk


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Review from the Wall Street Journal:


By virtue of their broad musical accomplishments, Buddy and Julie Miller have essentially reigned since the mid-1990s as the unpretentious but royal couple of Americana music, that lovably motley modern-roots music genre derived from the American music traditions of country, folk, gospel, roots rock and more. Their CDs, whether recorded together or individually, have consistently garnered high praise for both the songs they write for them and for the often touching, sometimes feisty country-soul delivery. Their long-incubating new release, "Written In Chalk" (New West Records), is no different in that regard.

Songs of theirs have been recorded by everyone from country hit makers Lee Ann Womack, Patty Loveless, the Dixie Chicks and Dierks Bentley, to jazz great Jimmy Scott. Mr. Miller was seen bringing his always coveted, tasteful guitar work behind Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on this year's Grammy Awards show, as he did throughout their recent tour of major arenas. (Led Zeppelin veteran Mr. Plant performs a comic duet with Mr. Miller on the new release.) And Mr. Miller has produced records for Solomon Burke, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Allison Moorer.

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Zina SaundersStill, Mr. Miller, 56, and the more flamboyant Mrs. Miller, 52, are by temperament genuinely modest, and each, during separate recent interviews, remarked on being taken aback by the international outpouring of good wishes and concern that followed Mr. Miller's triple-bypass surgery. He'd felt a heart attack coming on after a Feb. 19 performance with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin in Baltimore.

"The first month was rough; then it got better," Mr. Miller noted. "I feel like I'd been beaten with baseball bats by a couple of the Sopranos, but I'm doing good. I've got a free pass to rest -- no dates until June.

"You know, after the heart attack and surgery, a side effect was that all my senses were really heightened. For a week or so, I could smell somebody down the hall and my hearing was really heightened. And that kind of beautiful note that John Deaderick plays on keyboards on the record, the kind that really hurts you, would make me start weeping uncontrollably. It was kind of cool; I was hoping I could hold on to part of that -- although it wouldn't be so good on stage!"

Nine of the dozen songs on "Written In Chalk" were written by Mrs. Miller, and -- some comic change-ups and love songs with attitude aside -- most of them concern loss or learning to be reconciled with personal setbacks, as titles such as "Everytime We Say Goodbye" and "Hush, Sorrow" suggest. As many fans of the Millers are generally aware, Mrs. Miller has not been seen on stage harmonizing with Mr. Miller or engaging in their George Burns-Gracie Allen style badinage for the past five years. She's been sidelined by the severely exhausting, painful condition fibromyalgia and by the sudden loss of her brother, killed when he was struck by lightning. Some of the new songs that seem most to reflect that experience in particular were, in truth, composed before the event.

"One of the things that sort of broke me," Mrs. Miller recalls, "was that I went to Texas to be with my mother after my brother died, and when she asked about the record I'd been working on for half a year before that, I couldn't remember one single thing about it, not a note. When I came back to Nashville and found the notebook with those songs in it, they were all so strangely prophetic that it freaked me out."

As a practical matter, Mr. Miller's packed schedule and Mrs. Miller's physical restrictions made it difficult to get this record made, delayed it, and inevitably affected the nature of their collaboration on it. There are, for instance, fewer outright duets on the record than on previous joint efforts.

"I worked on this so long, starting and stopping in between tours," Mr. Miller recalls, "that it was hard to gain perspective on it. It started out as her record, but she couldn't finish it, and it went back and forth. It's difficult for Julie to start and stop; she kind of gives everything together, everything she's got. So she would just get started sometimes and I'd have to go back on the road, which was really, really difficult for her -- and that went on for years."

"It's funny," Mrs. Miller says. "We live just a few blocks from Music Row, where people make appointments to meet and write songs for three hours. But I have to get totally lost in my soul and go oblivious to time and space and surroundings -- and Buddy's the only person I can do that with. But he's been so busy and structured, and me so completely not. Unless I'm pressured, it's like I have my own radio station going that I can just tune into for songs; it's like whoever is doing the songwriting in me is playing, and three or four years old. Once you let them know they have to do it, they can't handle it."

Tune In

Listen to clips from the new album "Written in Chalk" by Buddy and Julie Miller:

Gasoline and MatchesChalkHush, SorrowIt's more than a little surprising, but Mrs. Miller has not actually heard the released "Written In Chalk" CD. "Is that ridiculous?" she asked. "I never listen to anything I'm on after it's recorded, because I'm always tormented; I'll wish there was something I hadn't done." With the record overdue, Mr. Miller finished mixing the recordings in their state-of-the-art home-based studio, as he would most of the time -- but to speed getting the job done at last, he did it with headphones on, so Mrs. Miller couldn't hear the sonic calls he was making, a source, they both admit, of some tension.

Mrs. Miller, however, characterizes her husband as "one of the all-time great singers in the universe, with a unique sound -- strong yet feeling very deeply, and emotionally vulnerable." And Mr. Miller says that the songs his wife writes "are unique, not contrived; they come from such a pure place. She never writes anything that hasn't come from somebody's experience that's affected her. There's a place of innocence and depth at the same time that really gets me."

Mr. Miller hopes, he says, that the many songs his wife has backed up and stored will still yield an outright Julie Miller album sometime soon, but that's far from a foregone conclusion. He, meanwhile, is already booked to finish producing a gospel CD for Patty Griffin, to return as musical director of the Fall Americana Music Awards, and then to get to work on a record project with the jazz- and country-influenced Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot.

Whatever (and whenever) the musical outcomes, the Millers can be sure that there's an audience waiting expectantly -- with considerable love.

Mr. Mazor writes about country and pop music for the Journal

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