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There is Beauty in Plainness

November 25, 2009

I’d like to think that there are times in all of our lives when we look around and realize that there are few things in life that really matter.  This is especially the case when much of your internet life is spent delving into all things pop culture.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy seeing Adam Lambert replace good music with frottage as much as the next guy, but I have to admit that there are times when I long for something a bit more substantive.  Maybe it’s the close proximity to Thanksgiving or just some innate desire to occasionally involve myself in something real, but whatever it is I’m not in the mood for what Lloyd Dobler might call “sold, bought and processed” music today.

In my mind’s eye, I can see a man sitting on a bench outside a train station.  He holds a well-worn guitar in his weathered hands and much of his face is hidden beneath a shock of long, gray hair that jumps out from beneath his faded baseball cap.  He sings songs about trains and motorcycles, but when you listen hard to the words you realize that all that macho stuff is just a substitute for his real subject:  the woman he loves.  The same woman that sits next to him, sometimes harmonizing to his lead vocal, sometimes singing the lead herself.  She is a strangely beautiful woman, her dark hair and pale skin contrasting with her arresting eyes that paralyze you if you look into them too long.  There is no hat sitting in front of this couple to collect change and as you listen to them you realize that they aren’t singing for money.  They’re singing because that’s just what they do.  There are songs inside them that need to get out and that’s just what they do.  They sing because that’s their reality.

I don’t know Buddy and Julie Miller and I don’t have any idea if my previous paragraph adequately captures even a part of who they are.  But when I listen to their second album, 2009’s Written In Chalk, I can’t help but feel like these are real people.  Although they sing what would probably be categorized as country music, what they do on this record is as soulful as any music you’ll hear in this or any other year.  When Buddy sings about heartbreak, it doesn’t feel like he’s trying to sing a hit song.  It feels like his freaking heart’s broken.  And if you listen real hard, you’ll feel your heart break too.

Buddy Miller’s knocked around Nashville for a while, playing with such lumnaries as Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffith, Emmylou Harris and Allison Krauss.  He and Julie have been married for about 20 years and they are frequent songwriting collaborators.  As I mentioned above, Written In Chalk is their second album together and the best compliment I can give this album is that it’s an album that grounds you.  It’s the kind of music that reminds you of who you really are when no one’s watching; that person that only comes out when you’re alone.  But somehow Buddy and Julie show you that person without making you feel like a hypocrite, rather they let you know that you’re not alone and that even your most private self is OK by them.

Chalk is an album utterly without pretension.  This is a collection of songs that accept the fact that life is often hard and difficult, but ultimately beautiful and worthwhile as well.  “Ellis County” longs for a simpler time; “Chalk” mourns a love ended too soon; and “June” celebrates the life of June Carter Cash.  “Hush, Sorrow” is a short, pleading tune that simply asks sadness to pass them by.  The songs are by and large melancholy, but they have such an authenticity about them that it’s hard not to be uplifted.  This is especially true in the Miller’s rendition of George Jones” “The Selfishness in Man.”

In the end, we all need to be put in our place every once in a while, especially when we get “too big for our britches” as my grandma says.  Buddy and Julie bring us back to earth, but not by knocking us down.  Rather, they remind us that the earth is where we all come from and where we’ll all go back to one day.  Then, they just sit back and sing some really good songs.  And sometimes, that’s just what you need.

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