Universal United House of Prayer finds Buddy Miller’s feet planted firmly in the territory that the roots-country musician staked out over the course of five previous records. Again Buddy effortlessly blends a dozen American styles and idioms, again he evokes the mongrel force that breathed life into America’s best mid-century pop and folk music. Yet his latest disc is also something new. The tip-off comes at once, at the top of the first track, a cover of Mark Heard’s mid-tempo rocker “Worry Too Much.” We hear the rapturous gospel voices of Regina and Ann McCrary (daughters of Fairfield Four founder Rev. Sam McCrary); Buddy then begins to sing of an everyday landscape where inhumanity and impoverishment portend despair (“It’s the force of inertia/The lack of constraint/It’s the children out playing in the rock garden/All dolled-up in black hats and warpaint”). To this problem, the next song, a black-gospel-inflected treatment of the Louvin Brothers’ “There’s A Higher Power,” gently states the answer.
Universal United House of Prayer is a song cycle, and its theme is the soul. But in its engagement with social concerns – not to mention the ecstatic earthiness of its performance quality – this record bears no resemblance to the music now marketed to Christians. “I like the way those Marvin Gaye and Staples records were sort of gospel records,” Buddy says, “and sort of about the state of the world.” Like its 1960’s models, Universal United House of Prayer stands on the considerable strength of its music, and addresses what good music always addresses – the human predicament, and what the heart senses to be true.
A cover of Bob Dylan’s 1963 protest epic “With God On Our Side,” clocking in at nine-plus minutes, deepens the original Dylan performance and centers the record. A chronicle of militaristic misuses of God’s name, it is held in compelling focus by the steady, grim development of the Irish-dirge-like arrangement – Jim Lauderdale’s sporadic tenor, Brady Blade’s hyper-creative drumming – but even more by Buddy’s vocal, which transmutes the anger of the original to a profound sorrowfulness. George W. Bush’s war machine is clearly implicated, but the true weight of the update lies in its emotional authenticity – in, for instance, the singer’s controlled dismay that “God” and “our side” should inhabit, repeatedly, the same clause.
Buddy’s songwriting is amplified by a strong group of collaborators. “This Old World,” written with Victoria Williams, employs the kind of sweetly didactic playfulness that animated Woody Guthrie’s songs for children. There are four co-written with wife Julie, of which “Shelter Me” and “Wide River to Cross” – a beautiful duet with Emmylou Harris – stand out as perfect gems, hymnlike in their melodic clarity and all the stronger for their contemporary verbal transparency. On “Is That You,” Buddy addresses God directly, his voice hushed and reverent, his words conversationally inquisitive: “Did you wear a crown, and was it made of thorns?…Did you go down to Hell and back for me?” Here is a guileless soul standing humbly before an awesome mystery. Here too is a precise understanding of the genius of Pops Staples. In fact, the record continually reminds the listener of the Staples’ large-spirited ability to project divinity onto matters great and small.
Over nine years, the cast of players on Buddy’s records has remained relatively stable, and the ambience of his home studio and favored machinery (Wandre electric guitar, Vox AC30 amp, deep tremolo) has become instantly recognizable. At the same time the experimental, concept-driven edge of his arrangements and mixes has proceeded outward. Check out the compressed cacophony of the chorus of “Don’t Wait” – watch your VU meters jump to +3 and stay motionless for 8 bars. Enjoy that song’s neo-futurist breakdown. Feel the whole band breathe as one on “Fall on the Rock.” Hear Phil Madeira’s accordion spring boldly from nowhere; admire the ultra-smooth hand-offs between Buddy’s guitar and Tammy Rogers’s fiddle. And there’s nothing much to do about Brady Blade’s and Bryan Owings’s drumming but laugh, and marvel. The percussionist typically has the freest hands on a Buddy Miller record, and these guys make the most of the latitude. Results like these don’t come from either planning or improvisation, but an inspired balance between the two, a kind of managed freedom. One feels lucky to hear an artist creating at this level of intelligence and confidence, especially one roughly identified with “country,” a form which lately has been so cheapened by pandering common-man impersonators.
Behind the music is a modest man of extraordinarily broad skills. Emmylou Harris, in whose band Buddy served for 8 years, calls the 51-year old Ohio-born Nashville transplant “one of the best guitar players of all time.” Steve Earle, another former bandmate, pronounces him “the best country singer working today.” Records by artists ranging from Lucinda Williams to Trisha Yearwood have benefited from Buddy’s vocal and instrumental prowess. As for the taut, elegiac songs he composes, they could be mistaken for disinterred relics, resonant of a lost age when white and black music were casually consanguineous – could be, only cover versions by hitmakers like Lee Ann Womack, Brooks & Dunn, and the Dixie Chicks have proved their contemporary power, affirming Buddy as one of Music City’s most valuable writers. Then there is his superiority as a producer and engineer (Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Jim Lauderdale). And he has a nice sideline mastering records.
Buddy is a master of many disciplines – but note how all this mastery is ultimately pressed into service. With Your Love and Other Lies (1995), Poison Love (1997), Cruel Moon (1999), the co-billed Buddy and Julie Miller (2001, a 2001 Grammy™ nominee for Best Contemporary Folk Album), Midnight and Lonesome (2002), and his latest, Buddy has created a niche in American music all his own. Here, rich tones are coaxed from plastic guitars and trash cans; human desires are unveiled, picked over, mourned; remote musical origins are honored. A living room, a Pro Tools rig, and a complement of vintage mikes make, somehow, an environment no proper studio can. Buddy’s singularity is in his willingness to subordinate his extravagant technical gifts to a specific program: the creation of a music that is purposefully personal, naturally eccentric, and spiritually substantial. In this way he is to music as someone like Michael Powell is to film or Flannery O’Connor to literature. He is, simply, a thoroughgoing auteur, the only one in country music.