Buddy Miller may well be, as some prominent voices hold, the past decade’s best artist of his kind. But for all his admirable modesty, you’d never know it. For that reason, a new Buddy Miller record is an important and understated event, like an appearance by the world’s most valuable sixth man. A new record with his talented wife Julie is even more remarkable because in spite of all the collaborating they’ve done throughout the years, this is only their second proper album together. Miller is following up a minor classic, Universal United House of Prayer, and although Julie Miller has been quieter recently — her last solo album was 1999’s Broken Things — the stage is set for a brilliant return. And with Written in Chalk, the pair makes almost every move you’d want them to.
Predictably, the twin highlights throughout Written in Chalk are Julie’s songwriting and Buddy’s guitar. Julie’s songs are sharp-eyed swirls of earnest observation, so delicate sometimes that they feel fragile, but always undergirded by sturdy melodies. Buddy’s guitar playing is both uncannily sympathetic and unfailingly economical, a quality honed, no doubt, by all those years as a sideman. Both are endearing, slightly rough-hewn vocalists, and the instrumental support they get is solid throughout. (Two ringers worth noting: Jay Bellerose, one of American music’s most remarkable drummers, makes a too-brief appearance; and Larry Campell, a veteran of Bob Dylan’s Never-ending Tour, Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles, and Phil Lesh’s Friends, contributes mandolin and fiddle.)
Both Buddy and Julie Miller have famously good taste, and Written in Chalk, with its wide range of voices and styles, nicely displays the different modes in which they can work. “Gasoline and Matches” is a dirty roadhouse romp, “A Long, Long Time” is an airy lounge piece. A take on Dee Ervin’s “One Part, Two Part”, with Regina McCrary singing backup, is a rousing chart-topper in embryo, and “Everytime We Say Goodbye” and “Hush, Sorrow” are subdued, occasionally meandering, ballads. Like “Gasoline and Matches”, “Memphis Jane” — the hard-charging story of a hitchhiker with dual identities — is, thankfully, gritty enough to dislodge a recurring tone of gentleness that nearly softens the entire record’s impact.
If anything it is actually the Millers’ willingness to cede the spotlight, however, that actually threatens to disrupt the shape of the album. For example, a greasy cover of Mel Tillis’ “What You Gonna Do, Leroy”, sung by Buddy with Robert Plant, is a clear highlight — both singers are light on their feet, and they deliver the song with the good humor it deserves. What is less clear is where exactly this song belongs: through no fault of his own, Plant commands attention in ways that Buddy Miller never does. (Indeed, this slight sense of dislocation might be natural — the song was recorded in a dressing room during the Allison Krauss/Robert Plant tour.) Written in Chalk‘s list of guest vocalists — which also includes Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Regina McCrary — is certainly impressive and, track for track, the quality is so high here that this may seem a middling complaint, but it might be just as well to hear to hear Buddy and Julie sing the duets together. In fact, their unadorned partnership on “June” is one of the record’s most satisfying moments. A new Buddy and Julie Miller record is undoubtedly a special occasion; this one just makes you wish you could spend a little more personal time with the hosts.