The playing is sublime throughout, and the arrangements varied.
Jon Lusk 2009
A much sought after producer, singer, songwriter and above all guitarist, Buddy Miller has worked with the cream of leftfield country, most recently appearing with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their Raising Sand tour. His wife Julie (also a singer and writer) has her own solo career, and this is only their second joint album. It's hard to tell whether the songs on Written In Chalk sound familiar because they're clever or clichéd, but you'll swear you’ve heard much of this all-new material before.
That might literally be true of What You Gonna Do Leroy, Miller's plodding, bluesy duet with Plant, which simply seems hackneyed. The punchy raunch of Gasoline and Matches is more convincing, with Julie Miller backing Buddy's lead on what's presumably a celebration of the chemistry that's kept their 20-year marriage sparky.
Julie Miller's little-girl-lost lead vocals are pitched somewhere between Stevie Nicks and Rickie Lee Jones and restricted to a series of forlorn and somewhat samey ballads (Don't Say Goodbye, Every Time We Say Goodbye) with A Long, Long Time venturing into late night jazz bar smoochiness.
Buddy Miller's grizzled voice is perhaps less distinctive but more appealing, and he takes the lead vocal on the best of the songs. Ellis County is a nostalgic meditation on the good ole bad ole days (''Times was hard but we didn't know it'') which sounds like Steve Earle could have written it and should have strong resonance with a credit crunched America. He's effectively paired with Patty Griffin on Chalk, and elsewhere with gospel singer Regina McCrary, but Julie is back on Smooth, a hilarious tale about a memorable 'hitchhiking'encounter. Finally, Buddy's long-term colleague Emmylou Harris lights up The Selfishness of Man, otherwise most notable for its lyrical bite.
The playing is sublime throughout, and the arrangements varied. And of course, Buddy Miller's unshowy but highly effective way with acoustic and in particular electric guitar underlines why he's such a popular session player. It's just that some of the song writing lacks the sort of originality that might be expected of a headliner.