Pop stardom has, for many years, attuned listeners to the arrival of shining new faces filled with vital new ideas, to which attention must be paid. Instantly. Briefly, for the most part.
It says here that there is another path, at least if what one cares about is music, and not celebrity. The steady lines in Buddy Miller’s face, the passions which abide within his voice, and the effortless inflection of his guitar…all matched against words given shape by and with his wife, Julie, her writing and singing voice twining against his…they speak, as well, to the arrival of genius. Just not clothed in the baggage of youth.
It works like this: Malcolm Gladwell (the brilliant and best-selling synthesist of the varied research which seeks to explain how our brains work) recently summarized the research of a University of Chicago economist named David Galenson, who has been studying the age at which genius presents itself to the world. Two paradigms emerge. The precocious Pablo Picasso arrived as daunting and fertile talent in his early 20s, while the meticulous Paul Cézanne did not have an exhibition of his paintings until he was 57. Gladwell has also been advancing the thesis that it takes 10,000 hours to acquire mastery of any given skill.
This explains the slow, steady career arc of Buddy and Julie Miller.
Buddy will be 56 when Written in Chalk hits stores, though his work has been on regular exhibit since his wife, Julie (who is somewhat younger), began recording in 1990, and more so since he finally started making his own records in 1995. If his genius has not yet been widely recognized, no matter; the other musicians, they know. (There was a reason the final print edition of No Depression magazine proclaimed him to be artist of the decade, and it was not simply the mercurial humor of the magazine’s two editors. It was the music.)
He has been a singer, and the successful writer and co-writer of songs other people sang, many of them country stars, including the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack, and Brooks & Dunn. He has been a multi-instrumentalist and harmony singer for a succession of acclaimed performers, beginning with Julie, and then in prompt succession Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams. And, most recently, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. And he has produced records – in the studio he built in their home — released separately under his name and Julie’s, and bearing their names together (as with Written in Chalk). That same living space has produced acclaimed albums by Solomon Burke, Allison Moorer, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
For some years it was Julie who stood center stage, first back in Austin, Texas, where they met (she didn’t want the band to hire him), then in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and, finally, Nashville, where they settled in 1993, a short drive from Music Row. Along the way the Millers became close friends and supporters of Shawn Colvin, Jim Lauderdale, Peter Case and Victoria Williams, played in bands with guitarists Larry Campbell and Gurf Morlix, and drummer Don Heffington.
Worked on their art, slowly, surely. Perhaps uncertainly, but working, always. Beginning in 1990 Julie released four albums within the Christian market, and then two on the now shuttered roots label HighTone. Her last one, Broken Things, came out in 1999. Buddy has so far made five proper long players under his own name, though Julie’s singing and writing voice is ever-present throughout. And then, at last, in 2001, they finally, formally released an album under both names.
Eight years later, one of the most respected creative teams in Nashville — and beyond — has returned with a new suite of songs.
All things being equal, it’s a remarkable accomplishment. Both the album, and its making. Julie has had a tough time of it. Some years back she was diagnosed with fibromylgia (which is characterized by muscular pain, fatigue, and sleep deprivation), and so has had to cope with the ravages of a chronic illness. Five years ago her brother, Jeff Griffin, was struck by lightning while mowing their parents’ yard. She is a woman who feels deeply, and there is a careful emotional raggedness to many of the songs she unveils here. (And an unexpected helping of humor and joy, and abiding faith, too.)
And Buddy…he’s just been busy. In the two weeks he had set aside to finish this album last spring — originally simply to have been another Buddy Miller album — he was also trying to learn several dozens of songs he would be playing on tour with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. And to remember how to play the steel guitar he’d agreed to bring along for that gig. In between lining up production gigs, and the like.
It didn’t get done. Or, rather, Written in Chalk didn’t get finished during that particular two-week slot, though he tried. But instead of simply meeting a deadline and turning in what he had finished, Buddy set the album aside and went back onto the road. This left time and room for a duet with Robert Plant (which they played publicly for the first time as part of the Americana Music Association’s 2008 Honors & Awards last September), and the additional gestation time seems to have emboldened Julie to become a full partner in the process. (Indeed, Buddy has only one co-write, and the balance of the album, save his well-chosen covers, comes from Julie’s pen.)
Buddy was born near Dayton, Ohio, to an Air Force family, and mostly raised in Princeton, New Jersey. Julie Griffin was born and raised in Waxahachie, Texas. They met, in 1975, in Austin, when he auditioned for a band she was in. She didn’t take to him right off, but they’ve been married a long time.
Only a couple of such confidence and competence could chance the emotional honesty of Written in Chalk. Only musicians of such renown could round up collaborators like Larry Campbell (who has played with Dylan, Levon Helm, and one or two others), keyboard player John Deaderick (Dixie Chicks, Mindy Smith), drummer Brady Blades (Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle), and singers like Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and that guy who used to be in Led Zeppelin.
But, in the end, only Buddy and Julie Miller could make a record this good.
–written by Grant Alden