Buddy Miller sends a prayer into a troubled world

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."

"With the Louvin Brothers, I just wanted to do a song like that. That's a song that's been done a lot. I actually meant to have more country on there than I do, but I think it worked out okay."

With the parameters established, "House of Prayer's" perspective is strengthened with Miller's originals, almost all of them having been collaboratively written by Miller and a trio of co-writers - wife Julie Miller, country veteran Jim Lauderdale and folk chanteuse Victoria Williams.

From the loping country blues of "Shelter Me" to the blistering cautionary gospel blues of "Fall on the Rock" to the quirky folk country lilt of "This Old World" to the rootsy gospel workout of "Is That You," Miller has invested "House of Prayer" with powerful musical cross currents combined with equally weighty spiritual and social concerns scattered throughout the album's lyrics.

With so many different musical masters being served on "House of Prayer," it seems logical to infer that Miller was driven by the immediacy of inspiration to include so many distinct flavors in his recipe. But he's quick to point out that "House of Prayer" was neither conceived nor executed on a whim.

"I set out with this one sort of knowing what I wanted to do, more so than with my other records," says Miller. "With the other ones, I just had some songs, and I just tried to get them down very quickly. I tried to get these down quickly, but I knew there a few themes running parallel that I wanted to capture on the record. So I went in knowing a little more about what I wanted to accomplish with it."

Perhaps Miller's most important message on the album is found in its title, taken from the name of an actual but now defunct church located in east Nashville pictured on the album's cover.

Struck by the name's conveyance of religious inclusion rather than exclusion and an embracing and tolerance of all beliefs, Miller was convinced that the church's name and image were the perfect umbrella under which these songs could be collected.

"The picture is cropped a little bit; there are two faces on either side of it that I wish were on there because they actually look like people from all around the world," says Miller. "It's what I wanted to say, universal and united. It's not saying this is the right way, this is the wrong way."

The disc's theme of universality runs counter to the way that Buddy and Julie have been dismissed by both the contemporary country market and the contemporary Christian market (CCM). Miller admits that he knows very little about what happens in the Nashville scene and has no interest in pursuing his career on anything other than his own terms.

"Julie was involved in (CCM) a long time ago, but they didn't like her too much in that world, and we didn't do that many gigs, and we weren't very comfortable there," says Miller. "To me, it's almost as foreign as the country music scene in town. I don't really know what goes on with either one of them."

With "House of Prayer" out and an imminent tour to plan, Miller is busy on several fronts. He and Julie recently moved from their home of 11 years to brand new digs with a larger space and a better layout, which happened to be right across the street from their old home/studio. They were fairly deep into work on Julie's next solo album when her brother's tragic loss put a halt on the project.

As she moves through the grief, they get closer to the time when they can resume progress on it. Until then, the ongoing move brings results that are completely typical of Buddy and Julie Miller.

"The studio went in the first week. It's the rest of the stuff," says Miller with a weary laugh. "I feel like maybe we've moved what we really needed, and we should just burn the place down with the rest of the stuff in it. Or leave the doors open and let people come get what they want. It's right across the street so at 3 in the morning, I'm carrying chairs, and the neighbors think I'm nuts. It's bigger, and it's laid out a whole lot better for working. That was the main reason to move. That and the next door neighbor, who's 10, is Julie's best friend. They do little craft projects. The day that we moved in, they ran cup phones between the two houses."

Although "Universal United House of Prayer" turned out largely the way, Miller envisioned it and he is well pleased with its outcome, he graciously accepts a compliment on the album's unified nature with the admission that, after mixing it and beyond playing it live, he is done experiencing the album.

"I'll never listen to it, so I'll just believe you," Miller says with a laugh. "Maybe like five years later, I'll listen to it if I have to. Or if I'm in the room when it's playing at a record store. I try to get them to turn it off, but it kind of defeats the point. All I hear is what's wrong with it. I don't hear the good stuff; I don't like the sound of my voice, I hear what I didn't do right recording it or arranging it, so that's all I hear. I'd rather just live with the record that's in my mind."

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