If there has been a more heart-breaking song this year than the Miller’s “Chalk,” I haven’t heard it. The twinge in Buddy’s voice as he sings, “If all our heartaches were in a stack, they’d go all the way up to heaven and back,” is spine-tingling. The song, a duet with Patty Griffin, is only one of twelve remarkable tracks on the long overdue release from Miller and his wife, Julie.
More frequently known as guitarist for artists ranging from Emmylou Harris to Allison Krauss & Robert Plant, Buddy’s sadly infrequent outings with Julie are magical affairs. The emotional depth of the lyrics is matched only by the tenderness of the music. Written in Chalk is billed “made by Buddy Miller”, an apt description for an album that isn’t produced as much as it is crafted. A home-spun feel resonates, exacting in its musicianship yet radiating a relaxed warmth.
The opening “Ellis County” has a back-porch spiritual quality to it. Buddy and wife Julie intertwine their voices to magical effect as they reminisce about a country childhood. “Take me back when times were hard but we didn’t know it, if we ate it we had to grow it,” they sing, “take me back when all we could afford was laughter and two mules instead of a tractor.”
Miller duets with Robert Plant on the Mel Tillis cover “What You Gonna Do Leroy,” recorded by the duo in a dressing room while on the recent Krauss & Plant tour. No disrespect to Plant, but his vocals only make Miller’s voice sound even more authentic.
Although Buddy and Julie share singing duties, most of the songs were written by Julie. Her collective contribution sets a new high watermark for her songwriting. Her melodies are enchanting; her lyrics affecting. A plaintive piano sets an appropriate background for the forlorn “Don’t Say Goodbye.” “Take the stars down that I wished on, take the stars down from the sky,” she sings,” “take my heart and leave me here but when you go don’t say goodbye.” Her smoky jazz ballad “Long Time” might as well have been written for Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday.
“June,” Julie’s poignant tribute to June Carter Cash, is an emotional statement on the power of love and music. Written and recorded on the day of Carter Cash’s passing, it is powerful enough to make me reconsider my opening statement. This is the most heart-breaking song of the year.
Audio Download: Buddy & Julie Miller, “Ellis County”
[Source: New West Records]
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.