(New West Records)
A broken heart grown cold is the hardest burden you can find
- Julie Miller
Art, at its best, captures the essence of life. It allows us to relive powerful moments of joy or sadness or to experience things we have yet to discover on our own. This conveyance of emotion remains as art's fundamental function.
Considering that, there are those musical artists that render life in such a pure form, the experience for others becomes earth shaking. Songs of joy don't just bring joy. They embody it. Songs of sadness, more than bringing tears, leave one feeling actual pain.
I call musicians that can capture life like this "open channels". This is because rather than being a filter, slowing or softening emotion, they become a channel for emotional bursts that come at full force without limit or restriction.
Like a very select few, Julie Miller is an open channel.
Julie began her recording career in the Christian music world, but she never fit the mold. From the beginning, her songs explored levels of faith and spirituality not often found in the CCM world.
Julie's husband, Buddy Miller, understands music. He knows its history and how its different forms communicate. His guiding hand as Julie's guitarist, collaborator, and producer brings a sense of focus to Julie's emotional outpourings. So as Julie continued to release solo albums, each one began to lead down a path much too interesting and diverse for Christian radio. Buddy keen sense and deft fretwork were creating a new kind of magic.
At the time as Julie's musical transformation, Buddy emerged as a solo artist immediately presenting just the right sound for the new Americana audience. This was largely due to Buddy musical palette of choice being country music in the classic sense.
Still, at the heart of Buddy's great country records were Julie's songs. Go back to his first solo record and play "Through The Eyes Of A Broken Heart." Buddy takes Julie's song and brings a country soul sound to it even adding the legendary Dan Penn as a backing vocalist. This song demonstrates how Buddy and Julie Miller collaborate in the finest sense of the word.
The Millers stature soon grew amongst music fans and musicians. Buddy produced Emmylou Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and others, while Julie's songs were covered by big Nashville artists like Brooks and Dunn and Lee Ann Womack. It wasn't a surprise when Buddy was named No Depression's Artist of the Decade in their final print issue.
However, this new decade begins finding the Millers with some difficult challenges on their hands. Julie's brother, Jeff Griffin, was killed by lightning a few years ago. Julie has also suffered with health issues. Buddy even had recent triple bypass heart surgery. These have not been easy times for this musical couple.
Where once Julie's songs focused the healing power of love that led her from a troubled time as a young woman, she is now older and established in her life and work. The subject now is eternity, life and death, loss. Written In Chalk becomes the soundtrack for these deeply considered subjects.
Once again, Buddy's production skills create magic, providing a symmetrical order to the record. The album begins with the wonderful "Ellis County". This new song sounds like a timeless classic both in style and in words as it harkens back to simpler times. The record ends with Leon Payne's amazing song, "The Selfishness of Man", another slice of classic country. In between there lies bluesy rockers like "Gasoline and Matches" and "Smooth" as well as other amazing songs like "Everytime We Say Goodbye" and "Hush, Sorrow."
Needless to say, the entire record is brilliant achievement. However, its soul lies in three of Julie's most powerful songs.
The first of these is "Don't Say Goodbye":
Take the stars down that I've wished on
Take my tears so I don't cry
Take my heart and leave me here
but when you go don't say goodbye
The chorus above shows a sense of emotional defeatism that is hard to hear from someone whose words usually offer the power of hope and faith. The loss this song reveals is so intense that her words show how it has taken her down to her last shread on an emotional level.
There's a bottle that God keeps all our tears saved up inside
but it's gonna take a river for all the ones I've cried
With this couplet, the loss has overpowered her. She has embraced the pain and loss, but it has taken a heavy toll.
The next song in this trilogy of sorrow is "Chalk". Sung by Buddy, this song turns the white heat of truth on humankind and its failings.
All our words are written down in chalk
out in the rain out on the sidewalk
If all our heartaches were in a stack
They'd go all the way up to heaven and back
We don't know all the trouble were in
We don't know how to get home again
Jesus come and save us from our sin
These words and the vocal performance by Buddy seethe with simmering anger. The loss Julie experienced in "Don't Say Goodbye" still haunts her through this song. If anything, it has grown in intensity.
The final song is "June." Its hushed performance brings solace to the darker themes that the record has explored thus far. Julie words and singing tell us all that she is ready to let go of her pain and allow some healing to begin:
There will never be
Another one for me
I know someday I'll sing with you again
but the love that you gave me will last until then
Although this trio of songs anchors and defines Written In Chalk, the other songs on the record provide a comforting nest for these emotionally raw gems. Like Buddy has always done to complement Julie's amazing songs, he provides the perfect framework for them.
In the end, Buddy and Julie face the ongoing push and pull of spirituality without turning away. They understand that we are all here on this earth to experience this. For those who share the Miler sense of faith, one can look out into this world, often too cold and too hard, and only find signs of peace in the afterlife.
Written In Chalk presents some difficult truths, but these truths like all others will still set you free.
- Jim Markel