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
“Few current…acts sing with the command and authority Lauderdale brings to his performances, and fewer still have a set of songs at their disposal as good…” - All Music Guide
Jim Lauderdale is a multiple Grammy® and Americana Music Association Award-winning musician and one of the most respected artists working the Americana, Bluegrass and Country
music communities today. His record Buddy and Jim, which he wrote and recorded with longtime friend and collaborator Buddy Miller, was nominated this year for a Grammy in the Best Americana Album category and several Americana Music Awards, a show which he has hosted since 2002.
Lauderdale has always stayed true to his North Carolina roots but is influenced from the experience of his travels. He first immersed himself in the early country music scenes of both
New York City and Los Angeles before breaking through in Nashville as a songwriter. He has helped pave the way of the current Americana Movement recording records and writing songs that cross genres from country, pop, roots, rock, folk and bluegrass.
Lauderdale, a master songwriter, has had his work recorded by artists such as Patty Loveless, Shelby Lynne, Solomon Burke, The Dixie Chicks and George Strait, who has had numerous hits
with Jim’s songs. Lauderdale’s music has been featured regularly on the ABC hit show Nashville, and he has several tracks on the soundtrack of the successful film Pure Country.
Lauderdale is often called upon as a player and has toured with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rhonda Vincent and Elvis Costello. He also co-hosts a weekly radio
show on SiriusXM with Buddy Miller called “The Buddy & Jim Show,” which NPR’s Fresh Air described as “…highly entertaining...” Lauderdale is also the host of the popular Music City Roots each week from the Loveless Barn in Nashville and Scenic City Roots monthly in Chattanooga, TN.
He frequently collaborates with legends like Ralph Stanley, Elvis Costello and Robert Hunter and is also a critically acclaimed solo artist with dozens of studio releases, including his latest I’m A Song.
The first quiet piano notes of the title track of Patty Griffin’s new album, Servant Of Love evoke a sense of mystery. “I want to live by your ocean/Moved by the waves/No one can see.” Go further into this haunting, jazz-steeped meditation, and that sense turns into a spell. With lulling piano, fathoms-deep bowed bass and improvisational trumpet floating above like a swooping gull, Griffin conjures the call of the depths in literal and metaphorical terms (“words from the deep, calling to me…”) and invites us on her odyssey to answer that call.
Very much in the traditions of American transcendental writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and mystical poets like Rumi and Rainer Maria Rilke, Patty Griffin grounds her themes of love and mystery in the experience and rhythms of the everyday, the stuff of life. Servant Of Love takes on big ideas, but does so in the vernacular of folk tales, blues cants and jazz gestures. Griffin’s characteristic expressive vocals—equal measures passion and poignancy—and her potent songwriting blur the lines between the personal, the spiritual and the political. These songs move and persuade while they dive deep.
In case we think a pilgrimage into mystery is some esoteric undertaking, Griffin pulls us by the collar down into the greasy juke joint of songs like “Gunpowder,” where the most craven desires of the human animal hold sway. “Robbing cradles and the graves/Just realistic, not depraved…/…Draining rivers till they’re dry/I just like to, I don’t know why.” Explore the human heart, Griffin seems to say, and you will find darkness.
Not limited in scope to mere romance, these songs reveal how love underpins all our human movements—our passions, our desires, our mistakes, our neuroses, our greed and our good alike. Griffin embeds her exploration of love in the real, as in “Good And Gone,” an elemental folk song with blues in its DNA. It is Griffin’s powerful reaction to the shooting by police of John Crawford, an innocent man shopping in a Walmart. “I’m gonna make sure he’s good and gone/Gonna make sure he’s good and dead…/…Gonna make sure he knows his place/Wipe that smile off his face.” Never a writer to oversimplify, Griffin implicates more than just a man; she implicates the society which creates such a man. “Rich man has his money/What can a poor man claim?…/…Pawns of another rich man’s game.”
Even in songs which seem to speak from the personal, the connection to broader concerns abides. When, in the intimate “You Never Asked Me,” she cries out, “It was an exercise in catastrophe/It was a dance of destruction/…A flight of fragile wings,” she’s not just talking about a single relationship, but about love’s effects in the world. “Polar ice caps below and above/Conquered and claimed and ruined for love.”
Over nine albums, Patty Griffin has proven herself a writer of uncommon perception, with a genius for character-driven storytelling. On this, her tenth, she brings that genius to bear on her over-arching themes. The same trans-migrated soul seems to inhabit the characters in these songs, all different, yet all walking the same beat, speaking from the same source: the storyteller herself, of course, but also, the album suggests, a greater source. A source we reject at our peril. That melting polar ice cap in “You Never Asked Me”? That’s no metaphor. That’s the real world consequence of our spiritual deficit.
As Servant Of Love travels through different musical terrains—folk and blues, rock and jazz, ancient sounds and modern—a spare, organic quality persists. Patterns and reccurence weave through the album in small ways and large: the drone of open tunings, modal riffs and bluesy moves, images of nature. That lonely trumpet. They create a sense of sonic return that buoys Griffin’s larger message: Love persists. In the dark, in the mud, in disaster, in the sun, there love is. An elemental force.
While any song on Servant Of Love stands alone, each a vivid gem mined from a rich vein, together they create an emotional arc of unusual depth. Patty Griffin might take us into the dark, but she doesn’t leave us there. Instead, she brings the mystery into the light, and by the last song, “Shine A Different Way,” a joyous, tuneful paean to surrender and rebirth, we feel we really have traveled her road with her. Now we end by the sea where we started,, with “…the moon and the glistening waves,” a little more ready, perhaps, as Rilke said, to “live the questions.”
Patty Griffin is a Grammy-Award winning artist who has achieved great acclaim for her songwriting as well as her powerful voice. Her first two albums, Living With Ghosts and Flaming Red are considered seminal albums in the singer-songwriter genre, while Children Running Though won Best Album and led to her being named Best Artist at the 2007 Americana Music Awards. She won the Grammy for Downtown Church, her 2010 gospel album. Her songs have been covered by a myriad of artists including Emmylou Harris, The Dixie Chicks, Joan Baez and Bette Midler. She was born in Old Town, Maine and resides in Austin, Texas.
About Jesuit Refugee Service
JRS works in 47 countries worldwide to meet the educational, health, social and emergency needs of more than 750,000 people. With a three-fold mission to accompany, serve and advocate, JRS works side by side with the displaced, providing assistance to refugees in camps and cities, individuals displaced within their own countries, asylum seekers in cities, and those held in detention centers.
Today there are more than 65 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide, the highest level ever recorded. Forced to flee their homes, these are people from all walks of life, in search of survival for themselves and their families.
In response to the expanding refugee crisis, in 2015 JRS launched the Global Education Initiative, designed to
help refugees heal, learn, and thrive.
JRS is committed to raising $35 million and doubling the number of people we serve in our education projects to more than 240,000 by the year 2020. Education is the one life-saving intervention that cannot be taken away.
Educational programs are offered in traditional classroom settings and through distance learning at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. We also offer hands-on vocational training in life skills. Emphasis is placed on teacher training and education for girls, too many of whom have been traditionally left out of the classroom.
For more information about JRS visit www.jrsusa.org.
Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees visited 11 mid-west and East coast cities on a Fall 2016 tour to raise awareness and funds for JRS’s Global Education Initiative. Patty Griffin will headline a West coast and Southwest tour in Fall 2017.
Special Guest Scott Miller
Scott Miller came into the national spotlight in the mid nineties as leader of the Knoxville-based band The V-Roys; signed and produced by Steve Earle for his E-Squared label. After releasing two critically acclaimed albums, The V-Roys disbanded. Miller then signed to Sugar Hill Records and released several highly praised recording with his new backing band, The Commonwealth. Most recently he has recorded and released music through his own F.A.Y. Records label.
The last few years have seen big changes for Miller. He left his long-time adopted home city of Knoxville, TN to return to the family farm to tend a herd of beef cattle, look after his elderly parents and set up a new touring base from his hometown of Staunton, VA. During this time of transition and scaled down touring, Miller teamed up with old-time fiddle maven Rayna Gellert adding another sonic layer to his repertoire. The two released a mini-ablum titled “Co-Dependents” and continue to tour together and collaborate often.
For his newest cd, “Big Big World,” Miller tapped Nashville guitarist and producer Doug Lancio (Patty Griffin, John Hiatt). Miller’s avid fans will realize the title phrase points to the artist’s new musical horizons, stretching beyond any of his previous works and reflecting his significant growth as a songwriter.
Miller’s writing is informed and fueled by his connection to his family land in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He truly is the sum of his ‘Southern place’: rural imagery, sin and salvation, defiant, rebellious, pathos and humor. He is currently working on new music, stepping up his touring with the Commonwealth’s Ladies Auxiliary (Rayna Gellert and Bryn Davies) and finding a way to merge his life on the farm with his songwriting. “History is my jam”, states Miller. “The story is already there and all you need to do is find some connection with it and try to connect that to the listener.”
Miller recently collaborated with filmmaker James Weems (Jason Isbell) and photographer Glen Rose to produce the mini-documentary “Goin’ Home” which explores Miller’s personal and musical journey since returning to the family farm.