Universal Appeal

Buddy Miller addresses matters of the soul

,

either country

"I guess I thought of it as a spiritual record, not 'gospel.' I suppose there is a difference," Miller says via e-mail. At the moment, Miller's corporeal being is giving him fits in the vocal department. He's on voice rest until his appearance in Knoxville.

Made by the core of musicians who have been working on Miller's records for a decade, United Universal echoes familiar territory in his skillful guitar work and yearning voice, plus vocal input by Emmylou Harris, Julie Miller and longtime cohort Jim Lauderdale. But his straight-up country leanings have steered directly into spiritual territory. Although the disc contains a few foot-stomping praise songs—like the Louvin brothers' "There's a Higher Power"—the overall tone favors introspection and a certain amount of forewarning.

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Buddy Miller's voice—a rich, deep, nasal twang—rings with more truth and honesty expected from an artist in an industry so based on pleasing popular and corporate interests. Listeners suspect there's an inner buoy within Miller that keeps him artistically on track. The word "soulful" appears frequently in stories about him for good reason: Miller's seminal roots-rock mines the internal quandaries at war within our deepest selves.

But he's never been particularly specific about the nature of his search; he's never named names. So when he released a record of spirituals in 2004 titled Universal United House of Prayer , his secular fans might have been surprised at the direct nod to his faith. Julie's the Christian one , they might have thought, if they had any familiarity with Miller's wife, musical partner and brilliant songwriter in her own right, who recorded for the contemporary Christian label Myrrh in the early '90s. But what may seem to profane music-lovers as a crossed line into manifest Christianity is actually a continuation of Buddy Miller's ongoing exploration and expression of the soul.

Depending on which magazine you read, Universal United House of Prayer is either country, alt-country, folk, or gospel; Christianity Today called it a "socially conscious gospel record" and ranked it No. 12 on its list of best albums of 2004. Of course, several non-religious glossies named the record on their Best lists, too. Miller, a stalwart in the much-debated genre of alt-country, is used to mixed categorization by now.

"I guess I thought of it as a spiritual record, not 'gospel.' I suppose there is a difference," Miller says via e-mail. At the moment, Miller's corporeal being is giving him fits in the vocal department. He's on voice rest until his appearance in Knoxville.

Made by the core of musicians who have been working on Miller's records for a decade, United Universal echoes familiar territory in his skillful guitar work and yearning voice, plus vocal input by Emmylou Harris, Julie Miller and longtime cohort Jim Lauderdale. But his straight-up country leanings have steered directly into spiritual territory. Although the disc contains a few foot-stomping praise songs—like the Louvin brothers' "There's a Higher Power"—the overall tone favors introspection and a certain amount of forewarning.

Its darkest moments take an apocalyptic turn, particularly on "Don't Wait," which Miller wrote with Lauderdale. The low-tuned guitar rumbles with bass and reverb, backed by a sparse, shuffling click-track of drumsticks and then brought to a climax with a full-throttle drum rush and the ominous wailing of Ann and Regina McCrary, whose deep-throated cries imply an entire church choir. (The sisters' contribution to Universal most sets it apart from Miller's previous work, as their voices are so different from Julie's and Emmylou's lonesome harmonies.) The bridge breaks the tension and then builds it again with drummer Brady Blade hollering out in forbidding tones the first part of Psalm 27: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?"

"My faith hasn't worked its way into the music much," says Miller. "I do what feels natural, and this felt natural, at least for this record.

And if the performers' hearts are engaged in the music, listeners—whether they believe in the message or not—will know.

"I was moved by [gospel music] long before I really embraced the message," he says. "There's mystery and power in music that can stir the emotions—and when you couple that with a spiritual truth, you might find something even bigger at work."

That underlying power has always been active in the Millers' music, causing their fans to be fervent and dedicated. Miller, who played lead guitar in Harris' band Spyboy, is one of Nashville's most revered studio musicians. On this year's Grammy-winning folk album Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster , Miller played guitar on "Hard Times Come Again No More" as performed by one of his musical heroes, Mavis Staples.

"In the very first minute of her first run-through, with just her and Matt Rollings on piano finding her key, and us standing in the room, Steve Fishell and I were in tears. It was amazing."

Pop Staples and the Staples Singers have had a tremendous effect on Miller's work, especially Universal .

Miller first experienced the group by chance in the late '60s at San Francisco's Fillmore West, where he'd gone to see Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin's band. Miller, who was 16, recalls that the Staples "were on the right so they wouldn't take up too much stage. I was sitting about the third row back on the right side, so I was right in front of them. I came to see Janis and Big Brother, and their set was great, but I was so moved by the Staples. I've got some great 35mm pictures I took at that show. I've been looking around for those pictures, but I don't need them to remember that night."

Whatever category he fits in this week or this month, one thing remains true: musicians just don't get any more heartfelt, or soulful, than Buddy Miller. m

Who: Buddy Miller w/ The Lonesome Coyotes

When: Thursday, April 28, 7-10 p.m.

Where: Sundown in the City, Market Square

How much: Free

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