September 21, 2004
New West
Country, Blues Gospel, Gospel, Country Gospel, Americana

Album Review

Changeup: Buddy Miller issues a roots gospel album as his debut for New West. Miller effortlessly walks the line between the genre's styles, all the while stamping them with his own unique Americana trademark. Miller wrote or co-wrote eight of the set's 11 selections and employs a backing band of friends including Brady Blade, Steve Hindalong, Phil Madeira, Tammy Rogers, Byron House, Rick Plant, and (of course) Julie Miller and Emmylou Harris. But what sets it apart are the stellar talents of gospel vocalists Ann and Regina McCrary, who sing on all but two tracks. And speaking of vocals, Universal United House of Prayer is the first album that highlights Miller's usually unsung talent: his singing. The album opens with "Worry Too Much," one of the many fine tunes by the late songwriter Mark Heard. It's deep in the blues gospel groove; a B-3 and Rogers' fiddle wind around the middle of the tune, underscored by Miller's gritty guitar licking the edges and punching the middle. Miller's singing, buoyed by the McCrarys' sublime chorus work, goes right to the grain in the lyric and tears at the heart of it. "Shelter Me," written with his wife, Julie, is a deep, bluesed-out funky church song. Buddy's voice professes and testifies his confidence in a God who holds the place of safety while imploring Him to continue, with the McCrarys carrying the refrain to the skies with their otherworldly harmonies and fills. Miller's guitar bites down hard, gritty, and greasy in the break with a droning B-3 giving him the foundation to riff on. The cover of Bob Dylan's historical antiwar tome "With God on Our Side" may feel, initially, like an anomaly here. But the sheer beauty and bewilderment in Miller's reading makes it a spiritual of a different kind. The hillbilly gospel of the Louvin Brothers is also represented by a fine version of "There's a Higher Power." The folksy country of "Fire and Water" and "Wide River to Cross," both written with Julie, simply and profoundly offer the poetic, stark, and harsh realities of life as they are transcended with hope and healing. In each case, the sheer simplicity in the presentation (the latter with Harris) is dignified, restrained, and utterly genuine. The rollicking country blues stomp of "Don't Wait" (written with Jim Lauderdale) brings the raw snarl of Saturday night regret as it gives way to Sunday morning redemption. The set closes Julie Miller's testifyin' "Fall on the Rock," an unabashed exhortation to Christian salvation that rocks, rolls, struts, and swaggers with crackling energy, passion, and pathos. Universal United House of Prayer feels like it's the record Buddy's been waiting to make his entire career, and as such it is his finest moment.
Thom Jurek, Rovi

Track Listing

  1. Worry Too Much
  2. There's a Higher Power
  3. Shelter Me
  4. With God on Your Side
  5. Wide River to Cross
  6. Fire and Water
  7. Don't Wait
  8. This Old World
  9. Is That You
  10. Returning
  11. Fall on the Rock