Buddy Miller: Universal United House Of Prayer
Label: New West
Sound/Style: Earthy, country/blues-styled update of Southern gospel infused with soulful vocals and gritty guitar
By Steve Morley
(UMCom)—First emerging as guitarist and bandleader for fringe-country empress Emmylou Harris and then as a left-of-center recording artist, Buddy Miller (alongside wife and collaborator, Julie) has already staked out a legacy as a hero of the solidifying Americana scene. The newish genre has largely been a catch-all for hybrids that fall somewhere between the cracks of mainstream country and traditional folk and blues. But Miller’s Universal United House Of Prayer is one of a few records thus far to make a truly bold stylistic statement under the Americana banner.
The disc’s brash, eclectic blend of roots-rock, soul, blues and country, stirring as it may be, is but a piece of what makes the record a standout. If Miller’s potent musical brew is only one foot on the highwire of edgy experimentalism, the other is his thinking man’s take on his Christian beliefs. While numerous songs find him straightforwardly and fervently proclaiming Gospel truths ("You better fall on the Rock or the Rock’s gonna fall on you;" "You can’t worship money and God"), neither does Miller shy away from more difficult issues. Throughout the disc, he avoids resting his case on simplistic religious jargon as determinedly as Count Dracula would duck the first light of dawn.
While Miller appears as co-writer of more than half of the record’s 11 cuts, his choices of outside material perhaps say the most about his somewhat polarized position on faith in a fragmented and worrisome world. The lead-off track, "Worry Too Much," was penned by the late Mark Heard, a heady artist who—despite his far-reaching influence on progressive Christian music—was as eager to refrain from a full-fledged alliance with the contemporary Christian music industry as the industry itself was to claim him.
Heard’s refusal to traffic in easy, dogmatic answers to knotty issues closely resembles that of the doctrinally opaque Bob Dylan, whose fiercely probing "With God On Our Side" is featured here in a nine-minute version. While it sustains its momentum with a Celtic-flecked sway, the droning track taxes the record’s flow a tad and perhaps overemphasizes a subversive tone. Though Miller’s interpretation does soften Dylan’s acerbic attack on America’s religiously fueled sense of entitlement, it rightfully exposes both hypocrisy and atrocities committed in the name of the Lord, leaving many messy inquiries unresolved. Certain writers in the secular press (a venue that enthusiastically embraces Miller’s work) have latched heavily onto this aspect of Miller’s platform, possibly to deflect attention from the power of his unflinchingly Biblical assertions.
This strategy is only effective to the extent that one overlooks the high-stepping, hardly ironic cover of The Louvin Brothers’ "There’s A Higher Power" and the unambiguous lyrics in songs such as "Don’t Wait." Lines like "I hate to see your sun sinking down, and the path you take while you’re losin’ ground—don’t wait, it’s late, don’t wait" are as explicit as the song’s hillbilly-thrash metal chorus makes their urgency implicit. When Miller intones the hushed questions contained in the dank, mysterious "Is That You," it’s less as a Doubting Thomas than as an awestruck believer who already intuitively knows the responses: "Was the devil laughing?/Was the curtain torn?/Did you wear a crown, and was it made of thorns?"
Throughout the record, the singer/guitarist masterfully melds numerous shades of emotion, underscoring them with his oft-menacing six-string snarl and his varnish-free vocals, which pour forth with unforced passion. The supporting players are uniformly impressive as well: sisters Ann and Regina McCrary (daughters of Fairfield Four founder the Rev. Sam McCrary) lend a gospel/soul authenticity, while twin drummers Bryan Owings and Brady Blade are endlessly inventive, coaxing subtle effects and flogging drumskins and cymbals as though they were receiving merciless corporal punishment.
Miller’s scope is equally fearless, moving from swampy, snakebite country-rock to rousing, yokel-styled ditties in a manner that would almost be comic if it weren’t so compelling. It all works because it’s all grounded in honesty and heart. A friend of mine once said that he believed people should leave church feeling glad, sad or mad. By that reckoning, Buddy Miller, who hits those three marks and more on Universal United House Of Prayer, has distilled church into a superb and adventurous disc worthy of a hearty "amen." Don’t forget this talented brother when they pass around the baskets.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.