Of the Post-Dispatch
September 9, 2004
Buddy Miller is on the phone from California, and he's being so affable and self-deprecating that you'd like to just reach out and shake him. He's not a great guitar player, he says, and he's not much as a songwriter, either.
And he just "lucked into" the job as Emmylou Harris' Spyboy band leader for the past eight years -- as if maybe Harris, whose bands have included Ricky Skaggs, James Burton, Rodney Crowell, Sam Bush, Albert Lee, Glen D. Hardin, Al Perkins, Barry (and the Remains) Tashian and a host of others, isn't all that particular about her music. Right.
Miller's remarkable new CD due out Sept. 21 on New West Records, "Universal United House of Prayer," puts the lie to that kind of talk. The CD, the maverick Miller's sixth solo disc, is an amalgam of country and gospel, string band and soul, honky-tonk and blues. It is organic, raw, rocking and quite beautiful. It's essentially an antiwar album that derives its power by being for spirituality and values, rather than against a policy -- or politician.
"I'm overwhelmed with the whole state of the world," Miller says. "I can't watch the news anymore, but I can't turn it off, either. It's just horrible.
"I wanted to make a record with sort of a theme for the last couple of years," Miller, 51, says from his hotel in Cupertino, where he was preparing for a two-night stand of the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue with his wife, Julie Miller; Harris; Gillian Welch and David Rawlings; and Patty Griffin. He will open for and play with Harris at the Sheldon tonight.
"It has a position, but it's not screaming out," Miller says. "I want to get someone who's listening to think a little bit, and feel. Music is all about feeling. The thinking part doesn't come naturally to me. When I'm playing, it's all about feeling."
The first four songs on "Universal" set the table: Mark Heard's "Worry Too Much," a catalog of societal ills; the Louvin Brothers' "There's a Higher Power"; Buddy and Julie Miller's "Shelter Me"; and the album's centerpiece, a cover of Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side." Where Dylan sang about war with spit and anger, Miller's anger is awash in sadness.
"I've been doing that live ever since the (Iraq) war started," he says. "It just felt like it fit into what I wanted the record to be. That and 'Worry Too Much.' There's a spirituality to it, 'antiwar' for lack of a better word. And I grew up when a lot of records were that way, they tied together different elements, whether spirituality and the peace movement, or other elements."
Although Miller works mainly in honky-tonk, hard country and rock, and sings about love lost and found, the elements of soul and spirituality are not new to his albums. Miller also produced four of Julie's CDs recorded for the Christian market in the '90s.
An Air Force "brat" and Ohio native brought up Jewish, Buddy met Texan Julie in Austin in the mid-1970s. They moved to New York and formed the Buddy Miller Band, which featured guitarist Larry Campbell, a mainstay now of Dylan's band. It was during this period, documented in a Los Angeles Times story in 2000, that Julie abruptly left Buddy and the band.
"She had a pretty dramatic conversion (to Christianity)," he says now. "I had the police out looking for her."
But then he began reading her old Bible that had been propping up their couch, followed her back to Texas and converted to Christianity. They married in 1983.
On the new CD, Miller's soulful voice is backed on several tracks by Regina and Ann McCrary, daughters of the Rev. Sam McCrary, founder of gospel's Fairfield Four. Miller, ever the musical mixologist, added fiddle and banjo to balance their voices.
Four of the songs are co-written with Julie; one is written with singer Victoria Williams, Julie's best friend; and one Miller wrote with longtime pal Jim Lauderdale.
Asked why he rarely writes solo, he says: "I'm just not all that good, and I have an incredible songwriter living in the house with me, and I have some friends around."
He explains that he's not a "10 and a 2 and a 6" kind of guy, Nashville talk for pros whose days are cubicled for work sessions with others whom they might not even know.
Miller says he prefers the pressure of "pretty extreme deadlines" and the looseness of friends dropping by the Nashville home studio that he calls Dogtown.
"We record (in the living room), and it's a big mess and we got a bunch of cats running all over the place. Our records are noisy sounding; they're not pristine at all. I don't mind leaving stuff out of tune here and there. I go for a feeling. Nine out of 10 times (on records), it's just our good friends who are hanging out."
When he's not touring, he's producing other artists, mastering their records or playing guitar on their sessions.
But about his busy schedule as a session player, he says: "I can't stand it. It makes me sweat too much. Because with every note I play, I feel like I'm ruining somebody's career. I don't consider myself a great guitar player by any means. I get away with what I do."
Miller laughs and says again:
"I'm just not one of those guys who can do a 10 and a 2 and a 6."
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