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Buddy Miller sends a prayer into a troubled world

By Brian Baker, November 2004

Buddy Miller has amassed the kind of resume and reputation around Nashville and throughout the music industry that should allow him to puff out his feathers and crow his own name every now and again. He's played some relatively and consistently stunning guitar for Emmylou Harris for the past eight years while juggling a solo career that has yet to result in a bad review, a fairly busy production schedule, duet recordings with his wife Julie and a hectic, yet selective session schedule.

With all of the acclaim and adulation that Miller enjoys in all of the facets of his career, it would be completely understandable if he booked passage on a star trip every once in awhile. You know, public temper tantrum, slug a paparazzi, shun the press, show up when he bloody well feels like playing and not a moment before. The whole egocentric package.

The only problem is that Miller couldn't play that part if you scripted it and told him to act it out verbatim. He's just not wired that way. When circumstances require our interview to be pushed back 10 minutes, Miller spends a fair amount of time at the beginning of our subsequent chat apologizing for the change in schedule. That is the essence of Miller, apologizing for an inadvertent inconvenience.

That same moral conscience is at the very heart of Miller's sixth and perhaps best album, "Universal United House of Prayer," his debut for New West after a long run with HighTone.

Miller's original intention was to create an album that synthesized his rootsy country ethic with a decidedly gospel tangent, but his sense of disquietude about the state of the planet changed the focus of "House of Prayer."

"I knew I wanted to make a different record and sort of a gospel record, and then when things went south in the world a little bit, I knew I wanted to have it all connected and have a few parallel themes," says Miller from his Nashville home. "It's funny how things in life just started to change the record. My wife's brother passed away a year ago - he was struck by lightning - and that had a big effect on us and on the year. Things like that happening and the state of the world all stirred the pot, so to speak."

Miller's decision to infuse "House of Prayer" - recorded once again in the Millers' home studio - with a gospel tone was born from his exposure to soulful and socially conscious works by greats like Pops Staples and Marvin Gaye back in the '70s and nudged back into his consciousness several years ago when he was introduced to the talents of Ann and Regina McCrary, the daughters of Fairfield Four founder Rev. Sam McCrary.

"Isaac Freeman did a little gig when he had a record out a few years back - he's the bass singer with the Fairfield Four - and I heard the McCrary sisters singing," recalls Miller. "I just kind of filed that away; 'Ooh, I would love to work with them.' I got them over with the intent of using them on half the record and these other sisters - Matraca Berg's aunts - who are very country in an old way, but I never got to call them because I had so much fun with Ann and Regina. I loved mixing fiddle and banjo in with their voices. Back in the string band days, they would do that. Maybe this is sort of an updated version of that."

"Universal United House of Prayer" is an updated version of a lot of different kinds of albums and much of its definition comes from the songs Miller chose to cover. There's the contemporized country gospel of Miller's take on the Louvin Brothers classic, "There's a Higher Power," the rootsy throb of the late Mark Heard's "Worry Too Much" and the protest soul on Miller's exquisite nine-minute waltz to Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side." This triad of covers forms the musical and philosophical foundation that anchors "House of Prayer."

"I've been doing the Dylan song since the war broke out," says Miller. "Well, it didn't exactly break out. Since the war started, I couldn't get that song out of my head. I'd went out on tour and started it doing it live back then. I'd leave out verses when I was doing it live because it had so many. When it came time to record it, I realized I can't leave out any verses. I thought about them all, and they all had to go in, that's what the song is, even the Russian verse, which is still so relevant. I didn't realize how long it was until after I was about to mix it and I ran a copy for somebody. I'd been working on it for a few weeks thinking, 'This just feels long. I've got to help this out.' I'd add something here, put an instrument in there, change the mix until it would feel better. Then I looked at how long it was, and I went, 'That's why it feels long...it's long.'"

"For the Mark Heard song, Julie and I had done a version of one of his songs called 'Orchids of God,' and I wanted to do that. Then I thought, 'I'll do another song,'" Miller recounts. "I went through his catalog, looking for something that would apply because he was such a thinker. And ("Worry Too Much") came up - I engineered the record that he recorded it on - and I remembered that the other war with the older Bush had just started when he wrote that song and that's sort of what it was about. And, again, like the Dylan song, which is 40 years old, Mark's song is from the other war and still so relevant. And this is a gospel record in some ways, and Mark wrote in that CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) world, and I think he was the best writer and artist they'll ever see, and yet he didn't get the attention or sales or respect he deserved. He was sort of discarded by them, so I loved starting out the record with his song."

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