Buddy Miller: Universal United House of Prayer

Buddy Miller
Universal United House of Prayer
New West

They don’t come any better than Buddy Miller, they just don’t. If you look at who Miller has worked with, aside from his wife Julie, you realize that he is without question one of the cornerstones of today’s Americana movement. Although he’s perhaps best known for his work with Emmylou Harris, Miller has fashioned his own career quite nicely. This latest album, recorded this past May, features eleven tracks. Most of these have been penned by Miller but there’s also help from Julie, Jim Lauderdale and Victoria Williams. Add Harris to the mix for a guest appearance and you get the idea that Miller has once again come up with a soulful slice of Bluesiana.

The album begins with “Worry Too Much” which has Miller sounding like the recent efforts by Steve Earle, especially Jerusalem. “Oh, I worry too much, somebody told me that I worry too much”, he sings before the fiddle chimes in over an organ. It’s this slow, deliberate funky-tinted tone that Miller revels in, resembling a cross between John Fogarty and Mark Knopfler. But he surpasses both when it comes to wearing the song on his sleeve, letting loose often without ever going over the top. “There’s A Higher Power” is a lighter and uplifting but barren tune, that is the sound of Miller picking on his front porch with some help on harmonies by Regina and Ann McCrary. You don’t know which way this song is going but you know that it’s bound to get your foot bouncing. With instruments added atop of each other, it gets its bearings by the time the second chorus rolls around.

What makes Miller so damn fine is not changing anything about his style, doing what he does best on the murky, Bayou-riddled “Shelter Me” which would be just as endearing in a Louisiana church on a Sunday morning as it would be at an Austin watering hole. Byron House adds a lovely bass line before Tammy Rogers contributes with her fiddle. Think of something John Hiatt wouldn’t hesitate to sink his musical teeth into and you can hear what’s going on here. But by far the highlight is his cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side”. The nine-minute track is definitely Southern but also possesses a certain Celtic sway to it. He could just as easily be singing a Clancy Brothers song like “Patriot Game” here and sound just as strong.

“Wide River To Cross” is shorter and roots-riddled, as Miller is more in line with the folksy singer-songwriter style. Emmylou Harris duets on the chorus with her signature, angelic pipes. But this song pales compared to the near perfect “Fire And Water” which he co-wrote with Julie Miller. The Millers are a bit like fire and water in terms of sound, making the combination spine-tingling when it’s on. The arrangement is a bit reminiscent of Harris circa Red Dirt Girl as well. On the other hand, the close rambling feel of the aptly titled “Don’t Wait” is Dylan in his recent Time Out Of Mind resurgence. Then Miller throws a curveball with a loud, bruising rockabilly portion prior to settling things down again.

There are some slower, less than stellar moments, especially the come down of “Is That You” that takes things down too low for their own good. It’s a brief nadir though, as the murky, muddy genre-bending “Returning” puts the album on the right road. “Escaping from the dark side / unanswered questions burning”, he sings with help from Jim Lauderdale. It comes off as something Robbie Robertson might consider putting on a new album. The record concludes with the seedy sounding soul of “Fall On The Rock”, a bluesy electric guitar driving it along. Miller might one-up himself down the road, but if he doesn’t, he’s has built one heck of a house with this album, Extreme Makeover be damned!