These days duets are more like joint corporate sponsorships than a simpatico union of the heart and mind through song. Great male and female collaborations transcend their individual craft and emerge with something altogether new and remarkable. Kitty Wells and Red Foley, Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Johnny and June – they made music that was more than the sum of their already amazing parts.
The Americana world seems to be coming into its own in the duet field. What arguably began with Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris got a real boost with 2005’s Begonias featuring Whiskeytown and Tres Chicas’ Caitlin Cary and her friend singer/songwriter Thad Cockrell. 2007 saw Robert Plant, Alison Krauss and T. Bone Burnett’s Raising Sand set a standard for craft as well as sales. Now 2009 has already endowed us with two dazzling releases that build handily on this legacy.
Gretchen Peters is no stranger to the world of Nashville songwriting. Her songs have been recorded by Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, George Strait, Martina McBride, and Patty Loveless who was nominated for a 1996 song of the year Grammy for Peters’ “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am.” for such a prolific songwriter it’s surprising that her seventh solo album, One To The Heart, One To The Head is a covers album. On it she partners with L.A. native, El Paso resident and Renaissance man Tom Russell who penned one song, Guadalupe, co-produced and painted the album cover image of what looks like a stylized dead horse. Russell knows his way around songwriting, his songs have been covered by Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith, Dave Alvin and Suzy Bogguss as well as 16 solo releases. These are two heavyweights and they bring their considerable collective talents to bare on a great release.
OTTH,OTTH is referred to as a “western album” which Peters tapped into her earlier life in Boulder, Colorado to draw inspiration. The instrumental opener North Platte does set a western landscape with a Elmer Bernstein or Jerome Moross sense of expanse as well as gravity. The landscape contracts just a bit for the stark and beautiful Prairie In The Sky which beautifully highlights Peter’s shimmering trill as she floats over cello and piano accompaniment. Bob Dylan’s Billy 4, from the soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s film Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, gets a serious borderlands infusion with Joel Guzman’s extraordinary Conjunto-style accordion and Russell bringing his silky-graveled voice counter to Peters’.
Tom Dundee’s tale of cultural isolation shines as the classic country sound of These Cowboys Born Out Of Their Time and with Russell’s end of the road lament Guadalupe woe never sounded so good. The accordion and barrel house piano that kicks off Bonnie Raitt’s tequila fueled barroom sing-along Sweet & Shiny Eyes sets just the right cantina vibe. It takes guts to cover a Townes Van Zandt song and Snowin’ on Raton is done with delicate beauty and a proper sense of deference. If I Had a Gun furnishes this album with its title. “If I had a gun you’d be dead. One to the heart, one to the head. If I had a gun I’d wipe it clean, my fingerprints off on these sheets. They’d bury you in the cold hard ground, fist full of dirt would hold you down. They’d bury you in the cold hard ground, it’d be the first night I sleep sound.” Peckinpah would be proud.
Buddy Miller was featured on the cover of the No Depression’s final issue last year. The bible of alt.country/Roots/Americana declared Miller the Americana journeyman the Artist of the Decade and it’s hard to argue he’s not. On top of his great solo work Miller played lead guitar and provided backing vocals for Emmylou Harris’s Spyboy band, performed with Steve Earle on his El Corazon tour, performed on Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s 2000 album Endless Night and appeared on several albums by songwriter/singer Lucinda Williams. Most recently Miller has been busy performing lead guitar and backing vocal duties for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand touring band. Julie, his wife of over 20 years, is no slouch either with six solo albums, and three collaborating with Buddy, under her belt. Her songs have been covered by Dixie Chicks, Linda Ronstadt, Lee Ann Womack, Emmylou Harris, Julie Roberts and others.
But as prolific as they are Written In Chalk is their only their third collaboration in their first over six years, and though both Buddy and Julie share vocal duties the real magic comes when Julie’s lyrics are swathed in her world-weary angel vocals and complemented by Buddy’s chameleon-like guitar picking that’s been hewed by years of studio sessions.
Buddy and Julie collaborated on Wide River which was later recorded by Levon Helm and the superb album opener Ellis County, a song aching for the good old/hard days, is cut from the same Steinbeckian gingham. Robert Plant described Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On) from Raising Sand as “shimmy music” and Gasoline And Matches has the same vibe, swamp mud guitars and bad ass drums. Julie winsomely sings Don’t Say Goodbye which features Patty Griffin who has the good sense to lend only a supporting role to Julie’s already elegant voice.
Robert Plant lends restrained support for Buddy in a backwoods rendition of Mel Tillis’ What You Gonna Do Leroy which is reported to have been recorded in a dressing room at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre during the Raising Sand tour. The song sounds like the source material for a thousand rock songs not least of all Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues. A Long, Long Time exquisitely shows off Julie’s smoky jazz side and Patty Griffen makes an appearance on the excellent cut Chalk. As good as she is Griffen is she seems superfluous when you have Julie Miller at your disposal. Hush, Sorrow is a pensive beauty with Buddy accomapnied by Regina McCrary. Agian I say, when you have Julie Miller….
Smooth is another “shimmy” style swampy rocker with Buddy and Julie sharing vocals. Julie show up on another delicate beauty with June which was written and recorded as a tribute the day June Carter Cash died. The song is justly somber and celebratory. The Selfishness Of Man is a slow motion testament on hope featuring Emmylou Harris. I love Emmylou but my earlier comments on Patty Griffin’s appearances still apply. Julie would have been a better choice.