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Buddy Miller (born in Ohio) and wife/musical partner Julie Miller (born in Waxahachie, Texas) are the reigning royal couple of Americana music. Mr. Miller, 56, and the more flamboyant Mrs. Miller, 52, are by temperament genuinely modest, and each, during separate recent interviews, remarked on being taken aback by the international outpouring of good wishes and concern that followed Mr. Miller's triple-bypass surgery. He'd felt a heart attack coming on after a Feb. 19 performance with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin in Baltimore.
"The first month was rough; then it got better," Mr. Miller noted. "I feel like I'd been beaten with baseball bats by a couple of the Sopranos, but I'm doing good. I've got a free pass to rest -- no dates until June.
"You know, after the heart attack and surgery, a side effect was that all my senses were really heightened. For a week or so, I could smell somebody down the hall and my hearing was really heightened. And that kind of beautiful note that John Deaderick plays on keyboards on the record, the kind that really hurts you, would make me start weeping uncontrollably. It was kind of cool; I was hoping I could hold on to part of that -- although it wouldn't be so good on stage!"
Nine of the dozen songs on "Written In Chalk" were written by Mrs. Miller, and -- some comic change-ups and love songs with attitude aside -- most of them concern loss or learning to be reconciled with personal setbacks, as titles such as "Everytime We Say Goodbye" and "Hush, Sorrow" suggest. As many fans of the Millers are generally aware, Mrs. Miller has not been seen on stage harmonizing with Mr. Miller or engaging in their George Burns-Gracie Allen style badinage for the past five years. She's been sidelined by the severely exhausting, painful condition fibromyalgia and by the sudden loss of her brother, killed when he was struck by lightning. Some of the new songs that seem most to reflect that experience in particular were, in truth, composed before the event.
"One of the things that sort of broke me," Mrs. Miller recalls, "was that I went to Texas to be with my mother after my brother died, and when she asked about the record I'd been working on for half a year before that, I couldn't remember one single thing about it, not a note. When I came back to Nashville and found the notebook with those songs in it, they were all so strangely prophetic that it freaked me out."
As a practical matter, Mr. Miller's packed schedule and Mrs. Miller's physical restrictions made it difficult to get this record made, delayed it, and inevitably affected the nature of their collaboration on it. There are, for instance, fewer outright duets on the record than on previous joint efforts.
"I worked on this so long, starting and stopping in between tours," Mr. Miller recalls, "that it was hard to gain perspective on it. It started out as her record, but she couldn't finish it, and it went back and forth. It's difficult for Julie to start and stop; she kind of gives everything together, everything she's got. So she would just get started sometimes and I'd have to go back on the road, which was really, really difficult for her -- and that went on for years."
"It's funny," Mrs. Miller says. "We live just a few blocks from Music Row, where people make appointments to meet and write songs for three hours. But I have to get totally lost in my soul and go oblivious to time and space and surroundings -- and Buddy's the only person I can do that with. But he's been so busy and structured, and me so completely not. Unless I'm pressured, it's like I have my own radio station going that I can just tune into for songs; it's like whoever is doing the songwriting in me is playing, and three or four years old. Once you let them know they have to do it, they can't handle it."