“Maybe the music would have won the war.”
– In Country, Bobbie Ann Mason
Buddy Miller can feel the migraine coming on, and he keeps apologizing for it. “I’m not a very good interview subject normally, but I’m even worse with this headache,” he says more than once. He is worried about it throughout our talk, and apparently studies on it afterward; the next morning he calls to apologize again, saying the headache — “the worst one I’ve had in a year” — was so bad that he feared he might have made the interview a hard one by giving vague answers.
Even though he’s dealing with the pain, he never actually complains about it. Instead, he fears it might interfere with someone else’s life. This is typical of Miller: He is modest, polite, self-effacing; “I’m not a very good guitar player,” he says at one point, although just about everybody who has heard him would disagree.
On one hand, Miller is carefree: He lets a problem be, secure that a higher power will take care of things. And life is pretty good for Miller these days. He’s widely considered one of the major forces in country music (as a guitarist, producer, songwriter and singer); his albums have been critical smashes (with a Grammy nomination to prove it); and he’s got a good woman, the equally successful singer-songwriter Julie Miller. “I’m real lucky to have her around,” he says. He’s also started to relax a bit more, and claims to have been lying low for the past couple of years, although he is not known for resting on his laurels. “I’ve been trying to not do stuff,” he allows.
In fact, he’s recently completed the fourteen-city Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue tour with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. He’s excited and proud to have recently recorded with Mavis Staples (on her version of “Hard Times” for the new Stephen Foster tribute album Beautiful Dreamer), and he still plays guitar in Harris’ band. “I love being on the road,” he says. “I love everything about music — writing the songs, making the music, recording the songs. Love it all. Does that sound corny of me?”
On the other hand, there’s so much to worry about these days. For one thing, he and his wife Julie are in the process of moving just as his new album The Universal United House Of Prayer — which he calls his “most personal record ever” — is about to be released. (It comes out September 21 on New West Records, Miller’s first for the label after nearly a decade on HighTone.)
“We’re moving to the house right across from us,” he says, “so my neighbors can literally look out their window at 3 in the morning and see me carrying chairs through the street.”
There’s also the recent death of Julie’s younger brother that is still a very open wound of grief. And Buddy worries about the nation, the world. There’s the war that, despite proclamations of the mission being accomplished, is still sending soldiers home in body bags. He thinks about that a lot. He hopes his listeners will, too.
“This album isn’t a protest record at all; I would never call it that,” he cautions. “But I do want it to make people think, to really stop and consider what’s going on. There just seems to be so much hate on both sides of the political fence. I just can’t hang with all that hate.”
He pauses, looks off in reflection. “I am trying to make a point. It’s an important time to be thinking right now.”
One song on the album drives home his point masterfully: a cover of Bob Dylan’s early-’60s folk classic “With God On Our Side”. The song is a nearly ten-minute meditation on the foolishness of war, particularly on the foolishness of thinking God backs one side over another. It recounts a litany of conflicts — from the Indian wars to the Civil War and World Wars up through the Cold War — in which religion has played a major factor.
Clearly this song also speaks to the current world situation, with terms such as jihad and holy war now firmly planted in our daily conversations and newscasts. Miller’s desire to get people thinking is made clear in Dylan’s own words when Miller sings: “In many a dark hour/I’ve been thinking ’bout this…But I can’t think for you/No, you’ll have to decide.”
The track is one of only two covers on the album (the other being the Louvin Brothers’ “There’s A Higher Power”), but Miller felt it was essential to include. “As soon as we got into the war I started playing it out on the road, and I just couldn’t get it out of my head,” he says. “And I think that song says exactly what I wanted to say in a perfect way. It fits the album perfectly.”
All the songs, in fact, have some element to make the listener think — in many cases about spiritual matters. The album’s title comes from a church that was located on North Third Street in Nashville; its name always inspired Miller. “I just love what the name is saying, that unity. And the way the words go together,” he says. The starkly beautiful album cover shows a menacing gray sky hovering over the church’s hand-lettered sign.
Miller doesn’t know if he’d call the album a gospel record or not. “I think it may be a gospel album in the same way as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was, but I’d only call it a gospel album if I wanted to wrap it up in a nice way,” he says. “Basically, it’s an album that just completely comes out of who I am. And I didn’t want to make just another record. I wanted to do an album with an element of faith in there, a theme that spoke to something that’s a very important part of my life.”
The Universal United House Of Prayer succeeds on that count, and on most counts, actually. Gospel album, protest album, faith-based collection, alt-country record — all those labels are unnecessary and inappropriate because the album is, more than anything, a celebration of music and voices.
From the opening track, “Worry Too Much”, we are taken straight into Miller’s state of mind. As aforementioned, he does seem to worry too much, although that’s a matter of opinion. Maybe worrying too much is akin to having too much fun; it can be both worthwhile and verge on danger. Besides, his worrying isn’t selfish — if anything, it’s selfless.