Buddy Miller is humble as the Wandre guitar (made by a long-defunct Italian company) that’s been his main axe for more than a quarter century, thanks in large part to the generous application of super glue. “It’s always falling apart, but it’s just kinda what feels right to me,” he says with typical simplicity. While Miller would much prefer playing music to talking about it, he puts up with the inconvenience whenever he’s got something new to put out, as he does now with The Universal United House of Prayer, his sixth album (counting the one he cut with his wife, Julie Miller). As the title suggests, the sounds are rooted in gospel, but it’s not the formalist gospel of Ollabelle or the whimsical gospel of The Carpenter Ants; actually, Buddy doesn’t put any tags whatsoever on the music he makes — he just makes it.
It seems odd at first that a guy who was born in Ohio and grew up in Princeton, N.J., would develop into the only “thoroughgoing auteur” in country music, as fellow artist Robbie Fulks describes him in the new album’s accompanying bio, but Miller is a natural talent and a natural sponge. Princeton had a bluegrass scene during Buddy’s high school years, freeform FM radio reigned at the same time, New York soul station WBLS had a good signal, and Buddy had a friend who ran sound at the Fillmore East, so he was exposed early on to all the forms he would later combine. “Things were mixed up a lot more then than they are now,” he says. “I don’t think about genre-jumping or whatever it is. It’s just music to me. That’s what I love about music—taking all that stuff and turning it into something new, hopefully. That’s the fun part.”
Miller is perhaps the least celebrated member of the close-knit cabal of Music City outsiders—some would call them Keepers of the True Flame—whose membership includes Emmylou Harris (for whom Miller has played guitar for eight years—“I love my gig,” he says), Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin and Jim Lauderdale, but he holds his own with his better-known pals. As this is written, in fact, Miller is rehearsing with Harris, Welch and Griffin for a revue-style summer tour. Lauderdale and Harris contributed to House of Prayer, as did Julie, of course. But Buddy’s secret weapons on his latest outing are Regina and Ann McCrary, daughters of Fairfield Four founder Sam McCrary.
“I knew I wanted to make a different record, sort of a theme record—I hesitate to call it a gospel record, but that runs through it somewhat; that, and what’s goin’ on in the world,” he explains. “I wanted to make a record partially with Ann and Regina, who I’d heard singing one time. So I tracked them down, and when I got them over, it was just so much fun, and I fell in love with them and the sound, that they ended up being on pretty much everything. So the record took a different turn, but I think it says what I wanted to say … and I don’t know particularly what that is”—he says this with a self-deprecating laugh—“but I get a feeling from it that I’m pretty happy with.”
Miller was determined to make a statement about the way the country is going—“You’ve got a conscience for a reason,” he says—but he was equally determined to avoid any hint of didacticism, despite his personal beliefs.
“I don’t think this record gets too specific,” he says. “I was at Woodstock,
so I’m definitely old enough to remember the ’60s. It’s the ’60s again, except it’s not as much fun. Even in politics, it seems like there’s so much hate;
I just don’t dig that. I understand the horrible mess we’re in, but I don’t get what’s going on.”
The album opens bracingly with “Worry Too Much,” a protest song in modern dress written by Mark Heard, a friend of Miller’s who died in 1992. It’s followed by the hard-core gospel of The Louvin Brothers’ “There’s a Higher Power,” and its centerpiece is Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” a song every bit as relevant in 2004 as it was in 1964. “As soon as the war started, that Dylan song kept going through my mind,” Buddy says. “So I started playing it live, and I didn’t realize it was nine minutes long until I recorded it. To me, ‘Worry Too Much’ says a lot of the same things. And then The Louvin Brothers—you can’t go wrong with them.”
He made the new record just as he’s made each of his previous albums: at home, with Julie always nearby to offer candid critiques of the work in progress. “We’re pretty brutally honest with each other,” he says, “and I think that’s good and saves time when you’re working. For my records, she’s great. I don’t know that I could work with anybody any better, who knows what I’m after. And I think she’s a really incredible songwriter. And who else would give me half a house to work in and make a mess of? People come over and make a lot of noise.”
That noise has resulted in some fine records. Miller’s been recording in the living room since he first moved to Nashville in 1993. Soon after he arrived, he sold his buzzing Studer two-track and went digital. Like so many others, he’s using a Pro Tools rig, and he says it sounds fine, but he’s still in love with vintage gear. “I’ve got a lot of old mics and preamps, really old stuff,” he points out. “But as much as anything else, I just like how it looks. I don’t like looking at a computer screen when I’m working on music. The thing I miss most about my Studer is the smell of the tape—I think somebody should put that in a spray can.”
There’s a bit of self-deception in his recording technique, he admits. “I have to fool myself into not knowing I’m making a record. There’s always friends that come over; the gear and mics are always set up, so it’s just a matter of flipping some switches. We know we’re playing, but it’s so relaxed and messy that that we’re not really conscious of the fact that we’re tracking. So we’re working through the song, and it turns out usually that the really early takes, when you’re just learning it, have something that the later ones don’t.”
Presently, Buddy’s producing Julie’s third solo album, which will follow Universal United House of Prayer under their current deal with New West following nine years with Hightone. He’s cutting his wife’s record all over the house in an attempt to capture the songs at their very conception. “I have room mics in a few rooms mounted in the ceiling, so I can turn ’em on wherever I need to, because I love that sound of the room,” he says. “I run them all the time when we’re working on demos—when we’re actually just writing the songs—and there’s a feel there that you can’t get back to sometimes when you’re trying to play it. So a lot of Julie’s record that we’ve been working on is sort of built around those room-mic demos, and trying to use what we can and put the song on top of it. It just sounds like you’re right there with us when the germ of the song is born.”
Though they live just a few blocks from Music Row, the Millers have nothing to do with that world; fortunately for them, mainstream Nashville has paid enough attention to them, in the form of covers by the likes of the Dixie Chicks and Lee Anne Womack, to pay the bills at Chez Miller, allowing the couple to continue consorting with their muses without undue interruption. “We can’t believe how wonderful that end’s been,” Buddy says. “But that’s all been none of our doing. It would be fine if it had been, but we just sort of made our little records at home and found out later on that people had recorded the songs. A lot of them have been great versions, and it’s been wonderful. I can’t believe I get to play music, y’know? It’s a great thing. It’s such a gift to be able to do this. I love what I do—the writing, the playing, the producing, playing with Emmylou. It’s incredible that I can do any of it.”
Buddy’s cell phone rings, or rather yaps — he recently switched his cat’s meow ringtone for a dog’s bark after Julie told him she couldn’t take anymore of it (and she’s a cat person). It’s Harris, who wants to talk about the overnight trip they’ll be taking the next morning to Vermont, where the two of them will play a fundraiser for Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy. He’ll bring the Wandre and the Super Glue, his iPod and laptop, a DVD of the Tony Joe White documentary Searching for Tony Joe and his yapping cell phone—the essential items for a working musician in a changing world.