During the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, we had entertainers such as Bob Dylan, the Staple Singers, and Marvin Gaye to give voice to the Democratic opposition. These days, we have the Dixie Chicks, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., and Eddie Vedder singing out against President Bush and the war in Iraq.
Now, here comes country guitarist Buddy Miller to add his voice to the protest.
The soft-spoken Miller typically sings about broken hearts and busted romances, which makes his recent outburst -- captured on his new album, Universal United House of Prayer -- all the more surprising. His CD is the most graceful, faith-driven anti-war statement of 2004.
"There are things going on in the world -- and around my little world -- that just started the wheels churning," Miller says. "With everything that's going on, it's become harder to make another depressing, dark album. I thought, Let's take a left turn for a minute. Let's make something different."
Miller recruited gospel singers Regina and Ann McCrary, the daughters of Rev. Sam McCrary, the founder of the Fairfield Four, to sing back-up. He dusted off the Louvin Brothers' "There's a Higher Power" and photographed a little Nashville chapel, called the Universal United House of Prayer. After his contract with the Hightone label expired, he signed a new deal with New West Records and began work on the album.
The seed of this project came from a nine-minute cover of Dylan's "With God on Our Side," which Miller began playing in concert a few years ago. "When the war broke out, I couldn't get that song out of my head," he explains. "The melody is so incredible, and the words don't seem 40 years old. I'd been playing it live for a while, and I wanted to write a couple more [songs] like it."
Songwriter friends Jim Lauderdale and Victoria Williams co-wrote a few tunes, while wife Julie helped pen several others. Buddy plugged in his Wandre electric guitar (his favorite instrument, an Italian obscurity that's nearly as old as he is), turned up the amp, and cut the album -- his sixth -- in his home studio. His model included seminal tracks such as Gaye's "What's Goin' On" and the Staple Singers' "Freedom Highway," faith-based message songs that have since become American classics. For Universal United House of Prayer, he's also tapped into Pops Staples' style of guitar playing, employing a distinctively haunting reverb technique called tremolo.
"The tremolo on my rig never goes off. It's been that way for years," Miller says, laughing at the comparison to Staples. "When you're doing songs like these, it just fits in." But, he hastens to add, "I certainly don't sing like Pops Staples. I'm just such a fan. I put fiddle on all these songs so it didn't seem like I was trying to jump into that picture. And, with the McCrary sisters, the record took on its own direction.
"I wanted to keep it moving between genres," he continues. "When I was growing up, there was always that cross-pollination going on with the radio. You'd hear a country song, followed by the Beatles, followed by Percy Sledge.
"I listened to everything," Miller says. "I was very curious. I'd go to record stores and see who wrote the songs. I'd always be tracing things back," he says of his musical education, which began when he was a youth in Ohio.
"Even when I was a kid, I knew that I'd eventually be doing this," he adds, referring to his illustrious career as a Nashville musician and songwriter. "I just didn't know I'd be doing it at this point in my life and with the people I'd be doing it with, like Emmylou and Trisha Yearwood."
Miller's been playing with Emmylou Harris for the better part of the last decade, and it's her voice you'll hear on the plaintive "Wide River To Cross," the fifth track on Universal United House of Prayer. "I cannot look back now/I've come too far to turn around/And there's still a race ahead I must run," Miller sings on the song's intro, before Harris joins in for the timeless lyrics that form the chorus. "I'm only halfway home/I've got to journey on/To where I'll find the things I have lost," the duo croon, their voices perfectly matched. "I've come a long, long road/Still I got miles to go/I've got a wide, wide river to cross."
"Wide River To Cross," "Shelter Me," and "Is That You," all co-written with wife Julie, are courageous, sparingly-made statements that tap into Miller's personal beliefs without ever sounding heavy-handed or sanctimonious. With the November elections looming, these songs resonate like a breath of fresh air in a clammy Republican National Convention. They speak of growth and change and hope for a decent future. They express optimism for a humanity we should all believe in.
"I think this is my best record," Miller says. "I don't think this is just a gospel record or just a political record," he says. "It concerns themes that seem to follow us everywhere we go." n
Buddy Miller will perform with Emmylou Harris at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre Saturday, October 9th.