Miller’s Prayer connects unexpected dots      

John CodyBy John Cody

Buddy Miller
You might not know the name, but chances are you’ve heard Buddy Miller. Steve Earle calls him “the best country singer working today.” Emmylou Harris claims he’s “one of the best guitarists of all time.” His songs have been covered by a wide range of popular acts, including the Dixie Chicks (‘Hole In My Head’), Lee Ann Womack (‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,’ ‘Don’t Tell Me’) and Dierks Bentley (‘My Love Will Follow You’). His own Cds – both solo and with wife and longtime partner Julie – frequently place in critics’ year end top ten lists.

Miller’s latest disc, Universal United House of Prayer scored a Grammy nomination earlier this year in the Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album category. In September the Americana Music Association awarded it Album of the Year, and his version of old friend Mark Heard’s ‘Worry Too Much’ was named Song of the Year. Considering the album deals with big issues from a decidedly Christian perspective, it’s ironic that it didn’t even warrant a nomination in the Dove awards, the Christian music industry’s equivalent to the Grammys.

The album was inspired by two seemingly disparate events: the unexpected death of Julie’s brother, and the Iraqi war. He knew there were “dots to connect” and the two events inform the album throughout, focusing on mortality and morality.

While still in his teens Julie’s brother had been paralyzed when his dirt bike crashed into a tree on the family’s property. Twenty years later, on September 11th, 2003 – the day before his birthday – he was struck and killed by lightening at the exact same location. Understandably, the incident posed questions not easily answered. ‘Fire and Water’ is a heartfelt tribute: ‘You were left, with a broken wing/The one love left behind…Now everything you longed to see/you hold in your own hands/and on the wings of the wind you ride high.’

The disc opens with Mark Heard’s ‘Worry Too Much’ which was written in response to the first Gulf War. The sense of helplessness the song invokes is countered with a celestial solution on the next track, a take on the Louvin Brothers’ hillbilly gospel classic ‘There’s A Higher Power.’

Buddy was on tour in Europe when the latest Iraq conflict broke out, and wanted to address the situation straight away. Bob Dylan’s ‘With God On Our Side’ – a scathing diatribe against those who use a self-righteous faith in God as justification for commiting nefarious deeds – fit the bill. Buddy’s passionate delivery is riveting, perhaps his greatest vocal performance yet. “I just started singing it, and not knowing all the words, (I) messed them up…I left too many spaces in between the lines. I was probably thinking of what the next line was, but looking back on it gives you a little time to think about it. So it’s rather long… It took a little work trying to get it to build and not seem as long as it actually was…it’s a powerful song, and it’s so relevant still.”

‘This Old World,’ written with old pal Victoria Williams, is a bouncy admonition that you can’t worship money and God. The song tells how Cain killed Abel and the ‘sons of Abraham are still killing one another,’ the chorus, which exhorts us to ‘pray, pray,” is simple, but right on the mark.

Ending with Julie’s ‘Fall On the Rock,’ the song neatly summarized the disc: “Jesus said a man is gonna reap what he has sown/You’ve got to fall on the rock or the rock’s gonna fall on you.”

Buddy Miller CDCountry is always at the fore, but Buddy draws from a wide range of influences. While still in high school he got an incredible musical education courtesy of a good friend who worked as sound engineer at the legendary Fillmore East Auditorium, which ran from 1968-1971. Buddy got to attend concerts at the venue on a regular basis. “…not only would I go…but I would sit up there (at the mixing board), and I’d get tapes of shows. I went to so many shows there.” Fillmore owner Bill Graham’s adventurous booking policy insured that rock, jazz, blues, gospel and R & B were featured on a regular basis.

Miller was particularly taken with the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. On his website he lists three Airplane albums under current listening favorites. He’s particularly enamored with the group’s adventurous 1968 release After Bathing At Baxter’s. “I loved the creativity in the record making …that thing was like ‘what’s going on?’ I’d go down to my basement, hook up my stereo, unhook a speaker and just listen to one channel, then just listen to the other channel, and then wire them out of phase so that you lose what’s out of the middle, and I’d analyze those records.”

I asked if the Fillmore ever featured country acts, as I couldn’t remember a single one. “That’s a good question. I never thought about that. I don’t think so. It’s funny, they never did. An oversight… I saw the Staple Singers with Janis (Joplin), Miles Davis, blues guys. But I don’t think there was ever any hardcore country.” Buddy credits the Dead – through their albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty with exposing him to the form. It wasn’t just the psychedelic greats he listened to: “…well, those records and George Jones at the same time. I’d give George Jones the drug record analyzation” he recalls with a laugh.

After high school he headed out on the road, traveling across the U.S. with a variety of bands before stopping in Austin, Texas where he put together the Buddy Miller Band, which featured Shawn Colvin and Julie on vocals.

Buddy and Julie connected, and began living together soon afterwards. Her story is documented in The Julie Miller Story (Gospel Communications 1996) in which she relates years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. The family was involved in a local church – dad was a Sunday school teacher – and this made the situation even worse. Such abhorrent behavior was not discussed, especially by church people.

After years of turmoil, including suicide attempts and involuntary stays in mental hospitals, she embraced Christianity. Buddy was impressed with the changes in Julie, and subsequently became a believer himself. “I actually saw what happened. The transformation in her life. I don’t know what you want to call it. We all – the whole band – saw she was on the verge of just not being around anymore, very close to it. Her life just got completely turned around. And it’s due to God, so that had a pretty big impact on me. And…I started reading the bible…it (spoke) to (my) heart…It wasn’t just making sense in my head – I knew something was going on.”

Julie left the band after her conversion, and Buddy followed. They were married soon after, moving to New York and then Los Angeles before finally settling down in Nashville in 1993.

Between 1990 and 1996 Julie recorded four CDs for Christian music labels with Buddy by her side. In many ways he says it was a painful time. She has a unique voice, almost child-like at times, and it was common for Christian reviewers to poke fun at her sound. “It’s a funny thing… they made more fun of her voice than they listened to the music. Things have to fit into a package that sounds and says a certain thing… There were several reviews that made fun of her voice, which was kind of hurtful, and it hasn’t happened since then.”

And there were compromises: “We had to beef it up and make it…well, never mind” he laughs, “it was a long time ago.”

In light of recent world events, I asked about the ‘God is a Republican’ mindset within the Christian music industry. “It seems like it’s gotten a whole lot more that way. I didn’t notice it back then. I played guitar with Julie, and there was no thought given to that. You thought about politics, you thought about the world…but things weren’t as polarized and divided. There was not nearly the amount of hate – not that I remember. It seems like it’s gotten so much worse. I don’t know how you mend those fences.” Especially when Christian public figures like Pat Robertson claim the U.S. should assassinate a Venezuelan president. “It’s hardcore coming from him. I forget who said it – ‘Who would Jesus assassinate?’ It’s just not for him to say. I’ve heard people say it’s not that bad an idea, but it’s just not his place. I don’t really get what’s going on, but I sure don’t like it.”

As a believer in today’s highly politicized climate, he’s felt out of touch with both sides. “To tell you the truth, I felt sort of stranded on an island until I saw Jim Wallis on the Daily Show.” Buddy was unfamiliar with Wallis – an Evangelical pastor who founded Sojourners Magazine, and has written a number of books including Gods Politics: Why The Right Gets It Wrong, And The Left Doesn’t Get It (Harper) – but immediately related to his biblically-based approach to social justice and reconciliation.

As new Christians Buddy and Julie aligned themselves with a community of believers whose teachings they later realized were quite unhealthy. The experience left him wary of anyone claiming to possess divine revelation. Requesting that the group not be named in this article, he explains “ I’ll call it a ministry because that’s what they called it, but it was more like a cult… the attitude, the authority that’s always right… Coming out of that, I’m so sensitive to any manipulation from the pulpit, in any way: emotionally, politically, ‘turn to your neighbor and say this…’ If I gotta drag myself out to church in the morning, I want to hear from God. I don’t want to hear any jokes. I don’t want to hear twenty minutes worth of jokes that somebody got from some newsletter that goes around to pastors of jokes to tell… I understand all that stuff. I’m not a very good entertainer, but I know that’s what entertainers do. But I don’t want to be entertained. I want to try my best, in whatever way I can – even though I’ve screwed up everything all week long – to somehow hear a little tiny something from God if it’s possible.”

It’s not just questionable teaching that concerns him: “And the music is usually so horrible. Every place I go to, instead of putting me in the right frame of mind, it gets me in a bad mood, so I couldn’t receive from anybody anyway. I haven’t been going to church for so long, but I’ve just started going again.”

Actually, he’s found two churches. “Yeah. There’s a couple of them. There’s a pretty small little church. The pastor is as real and simple and deep at the same time as it can possibly be. And it’s real tiny. It’s funny, we saw him on TV changing channels, local Nashville TV. And we’d watch him, and in the middle of all that other stuff it just seemed heartfelt and real. That’s where I go.” The second church? “There’s a church two blocks from our house that’s pretty good. It’s got a lot of younger kids, and the music there is really great. The place I’m going to now, it’s pretty raucous and maybe out of tune, but they mean it.”

Buddy thanks the ‘Riding High Cowboy Church’ on the CD. “God’s very real there, and they’re very real. Nobody is pretending to be anything but what they are. It meant a lot to us, and that’s why it’s on there…Julie’s brother went to the church. When Jeff died a couple of years ago we went down there and spent some time and just really got – I guess the word is ministered to – by these folks. It’s just so real, and so down to earth, and so ‘unchurch.’ But at the same time, it’s like what the first church was probably like. It was in an old building, and you sat on bales of hay. Just real people with real problems, and a real need for God.”

I asked if he ever felt different being a believer in the industry. “No. Maybe once in a while I may have a slightly different code that I follow, of what’s right and wrong… just once and awhile. I think overall everybody’s good people. I’ve been really fortunate to work with people that are good people. With Emmylou, and Steve Earle, they have really good hearts and they care about people and they’re just good folks. I think that has a lot to do with it. I haven’t had to compromise anything.”

Mainstream experience has given new perspective: “You know, there’s bad people everywhere… I saw more questionable and wrong doing going on there (in the Christian industry) than I have with the people I know in the regular music business. It’s a business so it’s tough, no matter what. It just seems like being nice and being honest should work out no matter what you do.”

He’s hardly resentful of the years the couple spent in the Christian music scene, philosophizing “Even when Julie was made fun of, and wasn’t accepted or whatever, she didn’t take it personally…Not all music is for everybody…fortunately for us we found a little niche where people don’t think we suck” In 1997 she signed with mainstream label HighTone. Her debut, Blue Pony was rated an ‘A’ by Entertainment Weekly, and subsequent albums have likewise received rave reviews.

Mark Heard – who passed away in 1992 – is another artist from that scene who was misunderstood. “It seemed like every record Mark made went deeper, and were real. And the music was something else…” Buddy – a long time fan – offered his services after seeing Mark in concert, and ended up working on his last two albums, Second Hand and Satellite Sky. “I think that scene just wasn’t for him. I don’t know what’s going on there now but I have a few friends that play music in there now, and they’re real good, but I don’t know if they’re successful or not…”

Your Love and Other Lies, Buddy’s ‘official’ debut (an obscure solo disc, Man on the Moon (Coyote) was only ever available in Holland) was released in 1995 on HighTone Records. Described by Steve Earle as the ‘country record of the decade” it showcased his formidable skills as a writer, with songs getting covered by a number of popular country acts. Five more albums – one a duo with Julie – followed before moving to New West Records last year.

While big name acts have taken to his songs, Miller’s own releases are far from the generic, Pro-Tooled-to-perfection approach favored by the industry today. He records at home with a hand-picked crew of players, and the discs come across as genuine, slice-of-life productions that typify great records regardless of genre.

In addition to releasing his own albums, Buddy has served as Emmylou Harris’s band leader for the last decade. He worked in the same capacity for Steve Earle in the 90s. He’s also highly coveted as a session player, appeared on releases by Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, Trisha Yearwood, Kasey Chambers, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Frank Black (Pixies) and Rodney Crowell.

Universal United House Of Prayer features guest vocal stints from Julie, Emmylou Harris and Jim Lauderdale – all regular collaborators – but the most consistent voices accompanying Buddy are Regina and Ann McCrary, who sing throughout. Daughters of Fairfield Four founder Rev. Sam McCrary, they bring an decided gospel feel to the disc. I mentioned having seen the Fairfield Four years ago at a music festival. They followed Roy Harper, an English singer spouting tirades against the evils of the church. He ended his set with a angry shout to “Stop them!” The Fairfield Four came after, and sang a powerful set of gospel songs, breaking only to tell the audience that all that matters – the only reason they were even there that evening – was Jesus Christ. They were met with a rousing reception, and a standing ovation when they finished their set. The crowd continued to cheer as the next act – Los Lobos – set up. It was a quick turnaround, but the cries continued unabated. When the stage announcer introduced Los Lobos, he was almost drowned out with shouts for the Fairfield Four to return. Buddy remarked on how the gospel message is so much more palatable when presented through music: “It’s funny, I can make (this) record, which is in some ways a gospel record, and that’s okay… It’s music, it’s something else. But having my faith in front of (some people), oh gosh, that doesn’t work out.” So reaction has been positive across the board? “There’s just been one or two people who have been slightly offended by a song here or there. But…” – he begins to laugh – “they’re probably offended by country records too.”

© John Cody 2005

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| November 1st, 2005 | Posted in Articles |

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