NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The Spirituality of Buddy Miller

Steve Earle Calls Him "The Greatest Country Singer Alive"

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Buddy Miller has occupied a special place in the country music world for several years. As the heir to such stellar pickers as Gram Parsons, Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs, Herb Pedersen and Jon Randall, he’s been Emmylou Harris’ right hand man and lead guitarist for several tours and albums.

With his wife Julie and on his own, he’s written a number of staggeringly good songs and recorded a handful of influential and lasting CDs — cut for the most part in his living room. And he’s an acclaimed producer, engineer and record masterer — not to mention being one of the best guitar players anywhere. He’s also emerged as a quiet spiritual force and influence in the Nashville community and within the music community at large. And Steve Earle recently told, “I think Buddy’s the greatest country singer alive. I really do believe that.” Not too shabby a compliment, that.

Now Miller has recorded a not-so-quiet little gem of a country gospel album, Universal United House of Prayer (New West). Miller’s previous recorded work touches frequently on matters of spirituality, especially in such moving songs as “Sometimes I Cry” on Cruel Moon, “100 Million Little Bombs” from Poison Love and “That’s Just How She Cries” on Buddy & Julie Miller.

Miller is working his own corner of country music, an Americana-tinged country, with healthy dustings of blues, rock, both black and white gospel music and a vivid sense of musical history.

This is his first full-blown gospel foray. All but three of the 11 songs are Buddy-Julie Miller compositions, singly and jointly or with Jim Lauderdale and Victoria Williams. With backing vocals throughout the album from Fairfield Four founder Sam McCrary’s daughters Regina and Ann McCrary, and occasionally by Harris, Lauderdale and Julie, Miller fully plumbs the depths of faith and loss, of war and peace, of good and evil. The album opens full-bore with Miller raging through “Worry Too Much” by Mark Heard, a singer-songwriter who died in 1992. It begins with what seems to be an observation on current events: It’s the demolition derby/It’s the sport of the hunt/Proud tribe in full war dance/It’s the slow smile the bully gives the runt. It goes on to lament the legacy of war: It’s the quick-step march of history/The vanity of nations/It’s the way there’ll be no muffled drums/To mark the passage of my generation.

Ira and Charlie Louvin’s “There’s a Higher Power” also address man’s folly and God’s redemption: Go tell them people lost in sin/There’s a higher power/They need not fear the works of men/There’s a higher power.

Of the original Miller compositions here, “Shelter Me” is most moving: The earth can shake, the sky come down/The mountains all fall to the ground/But I will fear none of these things/Shelter me Lord underneath your wings.

But the raging volcano on the album is a nine-minute-plus version of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.” Miller sings it with a weariness born out of sorrow, but the song escalates in tempo and volume until his guitar is raging mad and driving his vocals, and the words fairly leap out of the speakers and grab you by the throat. Dylan wrote it in 1963 when the Vietnamese war was escalating into the quagmire it became, but it pretty much applies to any wars in progress. So now as I’m leavin’ I’m weary as hell/The confusion I’m feelin’ ain’t no tongue can tell/The words fill my head and fall to the floor/If God’s on our side he’ll stop the next war. The words alone cannot conjure up the majesty and the fury in Miller’s delivery.

If you don’t know the song, it’s a short history of America’s wars, told by a populist Everyman, and the central notion is the concept that America has always had God on its side — no matter what the conflict. The Puritans believed that if America followed God, the nation would be, in John Winthrop’s words, a “shining city set upon a hill for all the world to see.” Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, set the agenda in his 1630 sermon for the “City on a Hill” allegory that America adopted as a nation blessed by God and divinely ordained to succeed and grow. But Winthrop also warned, “The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world: We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us, till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”

Miller himself returns to war in “This Old World” (composed with his wife): Shake my head and wonder how much more/The bells are tolling on the streets of the world/What time is it, help me understand/Why is war in the heart of man. The album concludes with a hidden track, a short a cappella version by Julie Miller of “The Royal Telephone,” the old gospel song: Telephone to glory, O what joy divine/I can feel the current moving on the line/Built by God the Father for His blessed own/When you get in trouble call Jesus on the royal telephone.