Written in Chalk
Buddy and Julie Miller
Buddy Miller is an alt.Nashville legend–a songwriter, guitarist, producer, performer, singer, session muso extraordinaire on a range of instruments–and it is pretty safe to say that I want to have his babies.
He was a long-time guitarist for Emmylou Harris and has most recently been seen touring with that living illustration of my current theory of music, Plant and Krauss (of which theory, more later, as in, another post). No surprise, then, that Plant and Harris show up on this new album.
His main musical collaborator, though, is his wife, Julie, and this is a joint outing for them. And what an outing it is. Just stunning, and more fabulous than we could’ve hoped for given how good Buddy’s previous album was. So let’s get stuck in…
When I started writing this, I really had in mind basing it around what I consider to be Buddy’s brilliant playing and singing–and that’s there, make no mistake–but in listening to the album again, I think I have to concede that Julie is really the star of the show here. So keep that in mind.
The first thing to note is that this is a beautifully packaged album. Apart from the first-class artwork that adorns the cover, there is comprehensive lyric booklet inside, not-too-cloying liner notes by Grant Alden, and a comprehensive list of credits. Don’t know about you, but I like having all that stuff.
Now, musically this album inhabits the ground we normally have in mind when we talk ‘alt-country’, a form of music that draws, obviously, on the country music tradition, but is inflected with a range of other forms, most obviously rock and blues. And although the term is imprecise and irrelevant to the worth of the music itself, it is fairly useful as a way of placing an album–like the one in front of us–for the uninitiated.
(The term also has some sociological value in that it indicates a group of musicians who have broken away from the “hit machine” that is the mainstream Nashville music industry. They have chosen a route independent of the industry. Be all that as it may…)
So listen to that opening track, ‘Ellis County’, and you’ll hear a fairly straightforward (but wonderful) country ballad, replete with pushing fiddle and a very singable tune. Listen to track 2, ‘Gasoline and Matches’, and you’ve got a kick-arse rocker; sure, it has a country feel, but nothing that the Rolling Stones wouldn’t have been proud to write and play.
Skip ahead a few tracks, to ‘Long Time’, and we are somewhere else entirely; maybe that’s Nashville in the rear vision mirror, a long way back, but this is the sort of blues ballad that I would love to hear Tom Waits cover and that I couldn’t help but feeling was being sung by Rickie Lee Jones (it’s actually JM’s lovely vocal). What a great track and really the first one where you get a sense of BM’s skills on the six-string. Not that there’s any real live bleeding fingers or broken guitar strings or the usual injuries associated with guitar-god playing, but the guy is a star in an understated, slowhand kind of way.
In fact, the soloing on the track is handed over to Kami Lyle’s trumpet and it is like a siren call to the that Waits fellow. Like I say, would love to hear TW cover it, or even duet on it with Julie, a la his (Waits’) collaboration with Crystal Gayle on One From the Heart. Have a listen:
There’s also a Gospel influence apparent on the album. It’s right there in the fab Dee Ervin cover, ‘One Part, Two Part’. For me, the McCrary sisters, Regina and Ann, steal the show on this one. But again listen to the guitar: those simple clean lines and the lilting steel guitar. All so effortlessly wonderful. (Well, effortless in the sense of being made to sound so after a lifetime’s dedication to your instrument.)
As I say, the album really belongs to Julie. Eight of the twelve tracks are penned by her alone and another is a collaboration with Buddy, the remainder being covers. And what songs they are. Whether it’s the ballad territory of the likes of ‘Chalk’ or ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ or the slow-grinding country-rock of the awesome ‘Memphis Jane’, this is a songwriter at the height of her powers. In the field, the only person who could be mentioned in the same breath with her is probably Lucinda Williams. Anyone who knows me will tell you what high praise that is.
The fact that she has as sympathetic and talented a collaborator as Buddy to work with is just a bonus for us all. Their voices work together beautifully, and his instrumentation and production provides just the right touch to these excellent songs.
Compared to Buddy’s last album, Universal United House of Prayer, this one seems somewhat more subdued, but no less intense for that. Just buy it.
(The song is now called ‘Chalk’)
PS: I guess I can’t go without mentioning the song they do with Robert Plant. It’s okay, but for me is probably the weak point of the album. I mean, it sounds like they are having fun and everything, but the song doesn’t do much for me, and Plant’s presence doesn’t add anything, I don’t think. But hey, if Plant and Krauss tour downunder with Buddy in the band, I’ll be the first person lining up for tickets.