Just how much heartache can two people mend with a song?
Teenage boys don’t typically learn how to play the guitar in order to
make some grand artistic statement. Most are just looking to stir up
two things—a glorious racket and, if the fates are feeling particularly
generous, a bit of attention from the fairer gender. When Buddy Miller
sat on the edge of his bed as a kid—long before the unruly mane fanning
out from beneath his trademark ball cap turned grey—and tentatively
strummed along with his favorite rock LPs, I doubt he had any idea just
how well he’d manage, in both respects.
Beginning with 1995’s Your Love And Other Lies, Miller unleashed a string of gritty, soulful records that earned him a reputation as one of the finest—many would argue the finest—living practitioners of country music. And then, of course, there’s his coterie of beautiful, silver-throated songbirds: Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin. And, of course, his wife Julie, whom he fell for in the mid ’70s while the two were in Austin band Rick Stein & the Alleycats. The couple married in 1981, cementing a remarkable musical partnership.
Even though Buddy and Julie’s first official duo record didn’t arrive until 2001, the pair had collaborated extensively for years, writing together and performing on each other’s records. That first joint release, titled simply Buddy & Julie Miller, was named Album of the Year at the Americana Music Association’s first annual awards show and widely lauded by the music press.
The girlish, endearingly porcelain tenor of Julie’s voice sparkles when backed by the robust, velvety twang of Buddy’s counterpoint. But the magic you feel as a listener comes from more than just the sonic jigsaw of Buddy’s and Julie’s vocals. There’s a soul-clasped gut intuition to the way their voices dance about one another that just breaks your heart.
It’s fitting that the Millers’ second duo record, Written In Chalk, contains a song written by Julie commemorating the late June Carter Cash. Buddy and Julie recorded “June” in their home studio the evening of May 15, 2003, the night June Carter Cash passed away. It’s a stripped-down, ruminative farewell, sung from the perspective of the husband left behind, still dressed head-to-toe in black, ill-equipped to mourn the crushing loss. Julie’s voice sounds scratchy and raw, like she’s been crying, and Buddy’s harmonies take on a devastating emotional weight in light of their fellow Nashville lovers, who will no longer share a tune this side of heaven.
Even though the record’s opener “Ellis County” kicks off with a belly laugh, Buddy’s goofing count-off and the uplifting scrape of Larry Campbell’s fiddle part, Chalk’s theme of heart-crippling loss is firmly established at the outset. “Take me back when times were hard but we didn’t know it / If we ate it, we had to grow it / Take me back when all we could afford was laughter and two mules instead of a tractor / Take me back again,” Buddy sings with relish before Julie leaps in with the harmony. This recurring mantra of “take me back” begins almost every phrase in the song, but no matter how many fond memories are recounted, it doesn’t take a Ph.D in physics to realize that those times are over and done with. There’s no going back.
“Gasoline And Matches”—the lone Buddy/Julie co-write on the record—is the unofficial sequel to “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast,” from the pair’s self-titled 2001 release. Bryan Owings’ swampy, pounding drum cadence offers a suitably primal pulse to a song about the giddy combustibility of sexual attraction. Buddy’s woozy, off-balance guitar solo reinforces the song’s love-stoned swagger. But the tune’s smirk dissolves all too quickly into piano-tinkling weeper “Don’t Say Goodbye.” (Incidentally, there’s another cut on the album called “Everytime We Say Goodbye.” And don’t forget the devastatingly gorgeous title track, “Chalk,” a duet between Buddy and Patty Griffin featuring the lyric, “You never even knew it when I said ‘goodbye.’”)
It feels uncouth to point out the relentlessly heartbroken narrative at the center of Julie’s songwriting—after all, she’s admitted to dealing with clinical depression her whole life—but there’s a stultifying gravity to the emotional landscape of this record that occasionally leaves you numb. Still, at the edges of the record’s most grey-cloud moments is the iridescent glimmer of vocal harmony, which may not be too far from human harmony.
Listen to Buddy & Julie Miller on MySpace.