Buddy Miller got his first few minutes of semi-popularity in the past year with his album Universal United House of Prayer, which was nominated for the Southern Gospel Grammy (Randy Travis beat him out). But dont let the Grammys inane categories fool you. House of Prayer is definitely gospel music of a sort, and it does include a Louvin Brothers cover. But it also features African-American gospel singers Regina and Ann McCrary as co-vocalists, and Miller says the album was inspired by the socially conscious late 60s and early 70s work of the Staples Singers and Marvin Gaye. In any case, its hard to imagine Millers nine-minute cover of Bob Dylans anti-war ballad "With God on Our Side" on the Bill Gaither Homecoming.
Millers hardly your typical gospel artist, of any stripe. Hes been knocking around the rockier edges of the country music world for a dozen years or so as a guitarist, songwriter, producer, and minor-league recording artist. Hes been the guitar player in most of Emmylou Harris backing bands for the past decade. Harris calls him "one of the best guitar players of all time." Thats high praise from a woman whos had Elvis old sideman, James Burton, in her bands. Miller and his wife, singer-songwriter Julie Miller, operate a recording studio called "Dogtown" in their Nashville home. And since the mid-1990s, theyve put out a series of excellent alt-country albums, separately and together, on the roots-music indie label HighTone. To round out the mortgage payment, some of their songs have been recorded by the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack, and Brooks & Dunn.
The Millers are both Christians. After working, meeting, and marrying in the Austin progressive country scene of the 1970s, the couple disappeared from the music world and spent several years in a Christian intentional community. When they re-emerged, Julie Miller had a semi-successful career as a CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) artist. But matters of faith have been very much between the lines in all of Buddy Millers recorded work. The best stuff on his earlier albums was the kind of crying-in-your-beer, heart-broke songs that Nashville used to make.
That changed with House of Prayer, on which every song strikes "ultimate concerns" at some level or another. "Shelter Me" and "Is That You" find a Christian pilgrim alternately praising or interrogating the Creator. "This Old World" has a chorus that repeats, "You cant worship money and God," and a verse that wonders, "Why is war in the heart of man?" Then theres the Dylan song that, in case youve forgotten, takes a walk through the bloody side of American history, from the genocide of the natives to the Cold War, and concludes, "if Gods on our side hell stop the next war." Forty-two years after Dylan first sang it, the song is better, and truer, than ever.
Interestingly enough, the most timely message song on House of Prayer is "Worry Too Much," which was written by the late Christian music artist Mark Heard more than 13 years ago. The song opens House of Prayer, and Millers arrangement pairs the McCrary sisters moans with verses that, after cataloging the evils and inanities of the postmodern world, complain of "the way we tell ourselves that all these things are normal till we cant remember what that means."
Theres a lot more where that came from. It is refreshing and renewing to hear a radical Christian message, with both the spirituality and the social teaching intact, blaring from the radio (if you can find one of those little Americana stations). But its a mistake to get too hung up on Millers words, because on all his albums, no matter what Buddy Miller is ostensibly singing about, the deepest truth of his music always resides in his perfectly cracked country vocals, the deep blues moan he summons from that 50-year-old Italian-made electric guitar, and the melodies he pulls from the collective unconscious of this Afro-Celt mongrel we call American music.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.