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Written in Chalk      
Artist: Buddy & Julie Miller
Label: New West
Time: 12 Tracks / 51 mins
There was a time when country music was all tearjerkers about depression caused by your wife leaving home, driving over the dog on the way out, and the dog’s three legged puppy being traumatised. Since people like Steve Earle created New and Alt country, a wider remit has washed through the genre until we expect politics to crop up as subject matter well before leggily-challenged puppies. The Millers – currently country aristocracy, as the guest list proves – may have turned back the tide a little with this disc, which sits in the dim glow of grief. Most is for Julie Miller’s brother, killed recently by a lightning bolt, but in “June” she tries to get inside the head of Johnny Cash as he mourns his wife’s death.
It has been some years since the Millers’ other joint release – a superb disc – although they have each regularly appeared on each other’s records. Buddy has since given us his fine United House of Prayer collection, but has had little time to do much recording since, due to being a mainstay of Emmylou Harris’s band; joining the live band for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand tour; and producing albums like Solomon Burke’s Grammy-nominated Nashville. 
There are a couple of surprises here. One is that among the special guests – Patty Griffin, Ann and Regina McCrary and the predictable, but welcome, appearance from Emmylou Harris – Robert Plant turns up for a duet with Buddy Miller. With hindsight it is no shock. Miller is a musicians’ musician with a loose roots-with-attitude vibe. As well as the band connection, he is a far more likely collaborator than Alison Krauss was on Raising Sand. The duo’s voices gel well on the blues-tinged “What You Gonna Do, Leroy;” Singing country brings out the smoother side of Plant’s vocal, and Miller throws in some great yelps. 
The other surprise is that the Millers do jazz! “A Long, Long Time” brings out a previously hidden Over The Rhine side to the couple, with piano, sparse bass, brushed drums and a languid feature trumpet. It’s good enough to suggest that they could do a whole jazz disc and make it work. Julie Miller’s vocals come across as stronger here, with more sustained notes, than they do on her regular singing.
The mood of this disc goes up and down, with more emphasis on the down. Julie Miller eloquently wrote nine of the twelve songs. Exercising her sorrow, three of them have the word “Goodbye” in the lyrics, while four others deal with people leaving. I was struck by just how polished her writing as become, with lines like “Smoke from a cigarette coming underneath my door / Just like your memory sneaking up on me some more” evoking a powerful sense of being haunted by grief.
Through the pain, she shows how she’s anchored by faith. One of the most felt lines in the title track sounds like a lament for our directionless, consumerist society: “We don’t know all the trouble we’re in / We don’t know how to get home again.” We are already feeling the need when the song continues, “Jesus come and save us from our sin”.
It’s worth mentioning the opening cut, Ellis County, where the Millers bask in unashamed rose-tinted nostalgia. It’s hard to know whether they have their tongues-in-cheek while looking back to the days when helping to pick the cotton gave them swollen fingers, or whether they are making us think about what is worth more – tangible goods or the simple things in life that we all can share. There is deep truth hidden in lines like, “When there was nothing left to throw out, there was a light that wouldn’t go out”. Loose handclaps and simple fiddle back up the words. However the song is meant, it is a simple anthem that sounds like it could be in their set list for some years.
The different vocalists and moods can sometimes jar as they sit uncomfortably side-by-side, but there is a deep richness of thought and experience bubbling through these songs – which are, of course, impeccably played. The Millers are already highly regarded, and this collection will only enhance their reputation.
Derek Walker

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