Buddy Miller has long been a man of faith, but he hasn't often sung about it, just hinting at it here and there on his critically acclaimed alt-country/roots rock albums. But the current state of the world—the threat of terrorism, a nation at war—combined with the untimely death of his brother-in-law got Miller thinking that now would be the right time to put his faith on a record, clearly and plainly. The result is Universal United House of Prayer (New West Records), which we think is one of the year's best CDs. There's one "war protest" song on the CD—Bob Dylan's epic "With God on Our Side"—but primarily, it's just an expression of Miller's faith, a faith he has shared with his wife Julie, another fine musician, since her conversion almost 20 years ago. Miller, 51, has long been hailed as one of the world's better guitar players; indeed, Emmylou Harris noticed that a decade ago and invited him to join her band, Spyboy. Miller has stuck Spyboy while making solo albums—including a couple with Julie—all along. We recently caught up with Miller, one of the most soft-spoken, humble guys we've met, to talk about the new album and a few other things.
So, I hear your guitar is pretty old.
Buddy Miller Yeah, I bought it at a pawnshop for fifty bucks in the mid-'70s, but I think it's from the mid-'60s. It's a good fifty-dollar guitar.
You're one of the best guitarists in the world. You really bought it at a pawnshop?
Miller Yes. I was playing in a band with Julie, and we were playing in Boulder, Colorado. I was walking by a pawnshop and there it was. It looked kind of ugly-pretty. It had sparkles on it, sort of gaudy looking. But I bought it because I thought it kind of looked good. Took it to the gig and it sounded good. I went back to the pawn shop, and they had three more they sold me for fifty bucks each.
So how are they holding together after all these years?
Miller Super Glue. And there's tape on them, too, come to think of it.
Let's talk about your new album. The title is the name of a real church in Nashville, pictured on the cover of the CD.
Miller Yeah. Looking at the front of the building, on one side there's a muffler shop, and on the other there's a candy company. But now that old church is boarded up. It's gone now. We took that picture a year-and-a-half ago, and when we went back there to get permission to use the picture, they weren't there anymore. Which is a shame. But I liked the title of it, and I wanted to make that the title of the record.
How would you categorize it? Country? Folk? Gospel? What?
Miller This one doesn't seem all that country. But I don't know. I don't want to call it just a gospel record because there's a few themes running parallel in there. You could call it gospel or spiritual. I don't know. It's whatever you think it is. I figured I'd find out what it is after it came out.
What are those parallel themes?
Miller The war going on, the state of the world, things that have been kind of weighing on a lot of people—and I'm just one of them. That's why it starts out with a Mark Heard song ["Worry Too Much"]. I was lucky enough to know him [Heard died in 1992] and I engineered on his record, Second Hand (1991), which that song was on. I remember coming over the first day; and the first Gulf War had just started—that's when he had written that song. So I wanted to do a Mark Heard song for this record, and that one just popped out at me, that and the Dylan song ["With God on Our Side"].
Some people are calling it a war protest album. Do you see it that way?
Miller I don't think it is. The Dylan song could be seen that way. That song is over forty years old, and it's still just as relevant. It's a sad commentary on the way things are always going to be. But that's more of a song about people using God for whatever they want to do. It's just some heavy times right now. I guess the album has a little bit of that [war protest] in there. It's got a little bit of something to bother everybody, I think.
What else inspired this album?
Miller Julie's brother passed away last year. He was struck by lightning in the same spot he had a crippling dirt bike accident when he was a teenager. In the same spot, right in front of his mom in a big storm. That and a few other things, and I just kind of started seeing there's dots to connect. That's why I wanted to make a record that was just a little different than the depressing break-up love songs I usually do. It just felt like the right time.
Let's talk about the spiritual side of the album. What do you like about that type of music?
Miller Even before it meant anything personal to me, I liked gospel music. I listened to it and was moved by it. I didn't think about why. I'm not a real deep thinker, I guess. But I had a great love for it.
Seems like a number of artists have made gospel records lately, like it's trendy. But for you and Julie, it's not just trendy. It's coming from the heart.
Miller Yeah. Especially on Julie's records. She's made the same kind of record regardless of what label she's with. She made some records for Word, a Christian label. And then when she went to HighTone, a [secular] roots label, she made the same records that she'd made for Word, very spiritual. Me, although my faith is a big part of my life, I just make my records, my country records. Maybe there will be a little something of faith in there, but it's not what I'm comfortable doing.
But this album is pretty spiritual almost all the way through.
Miller I felt like I just wanted to do that on one record and have it say a few things, and that [the faith angle] would be one of them.
Tell me about the McCrary sisters. They're all over this record. How did you hook up with them?
Miller Their father, Reverend Sam McCrary, was the founder of the Fairfield Four back in the late '20s. I've got some old recordings of them. They're incredible. About six or seven years ago, Isaac Freeman, the bass singer for the Fairfield Four, made a record and a friend of mine produced it. They did a showcase in Nashville, and I went. Regina and Ann McCrary were singing backup, and they were incredible. I just fell in love with their voices, and filed it away as, Must work with them some day. Which we did on this record.
We got them over to the studio [in the Millers' house], and I meant for half of the record to be whatever that sloppy country thing I do is, and the other half be sort of string bandish with their vocals. But it didn't turn out that way.
It turned out to be more and better than you thought it would be?
Miller It really did. Some people will write a record from the beginning to the end, and go in and record it just like that. I'm almost the complete opposite. I might go in with two or three kind of anchor songs, and then wait for rest to show up and see what it's going to be. So this turned into something much different than I thought it was going to, but I think I'm happier with this than I am with anything else I've done.
How involved is Julie with this record? She obviously wrote a few songs.
Miller She co-wrote three, and there's one that's just hers ["Fall on the Rock"]. She wrote that after the first session when Regina and Ann were over at the house. She walked in, heard them singing and flipped out—and went back and wrote that song for them to sing. So she was pretty involved. It certainly wouldn't have been the same record without her involved.
I hear Julie's making a new record now?
Miller Yes. We've been working on it. We had it pretty far along actually when her brother passed away, and then we wanted to just take a few steps back. It might be a very different record now. We have the luxury of working at our own pace and at the house, so we can do what we want to do. It's going to come out next year, I'm not sure exactly when. It's been really going on for a while, but it's good.
Has she written a song about her brother and what's happened?
Miller Not yet. It's a pretty heavy thing to write about. But I'm sure there will be . . . Actually, probably more than half the songs that were written for the record before he passed away, you listen to them now and go, It sounds like it was written for him after he died. That's been a pretty incredible thing to see.
With two such talented musicians in your house, is it just music, music, music all the time?
Miller It depends. We're not playing music all the time. But I listen to music more than Julie does. She doesn't have it on casually in the background. She has to like sit down and concentrate, really take it in.
What are you listening to?
Miller I don't listen to much that was made after 1965. Between 1930 and '65 is kind of what I listen to. A record I listened to a lot when I was working on this record was Sanctified Jug Bands, from Memphis. I think it's from 1929 to '35 or something. Unbelievable stuff. Black jug bands with fiddles, and most of the songs start out with a preacher delivering a message. And you'll hear the people in the congregation start answering and answering. And then one voice will just start a song and then will kind of fade away. And then eventually they all break out into this song with the jug band, fiddle—the spirit of it is incredible. So spontaneous and real.