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Two Prophets: Pettis Challenges the Heart & Home, Miller Challenges a Nation
printer friendly versionby Dwight Ozard

Buddy Miller, Universal United House of Prayer
New West Records; Buddy Miller, Producer.

Fifteen years ago Buddy Miller was a little-known singer/songwriter/guitarist, co-producing his wife Julie’s records for the Christian Myrrh label and playing the Nashville honky-tonk scene when not on the road with Julie. While both Millers quickly discerned that their callings were not to the CCM marketplace (if you can find it, see my interview with Julie in Nov/Dec 1994 PRISM), those years hinted at a few things that would eventually make them stars: the couple’s (together and separately) emotionally searing songwriting, Buddy’s unassuming but virtuoso guitar work, (at home with either Tom T. Hall or Kurt Cobain), and Julie’s quirky but utterly sincere stage manner, that almost always found a way to surgically find your heart.

Initially Buddy quietly made his own music in Nashville clubs, playing twangy, bluesy honky-tonk tunes with such integrity we were certain that Buddy conjured Hank Williams Sr.’s ghost each time he played, first to find Hank Jr. and slap him about the head for all that foolish “are you ready for some football” shit, and then to slide in behind buddy and sit in for a set.

A decade ago, both Millers were signed to individual deals with the small but respected High Tone Records—and boy, did they give High Tone its money’s worth. Buddy would eventually record four sublime, plaintive, sophisticated and critically acclaimed solo records, a duo disc with wife Julie (and produce her own three High Tone solo discs), and all of them made both critics and colleagues apoplectic with delight. By the end of their contract, Buddy and Julie had emerged from the fringes as pure phenomena, regularly hailed as the “first couple” of “Americana” or New Country, their songs having been recorded by Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, the Dixie Chicks (“Hole In My Head” paid the mortgage), Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack and Suzie Boguss, while their singing and playing found them recruited by artists as diverse as Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams to Daniel Lanois, to Al Green to Midnight Oil and The Vigilantes of Love. Indeed, Buddy is among the most sought-after guitar players in Nashville.

And this ain’t hype, either. Miller is a guitar player of unmatched technical skill and emotional sensitivity, whose voice harkens back to the heartbreaking near-perfection of George Jones and Hank Williams. But it is his knowledge of the dirty, scrawled back pages of the American Songbook and his ability to draw from this vast, intimate understanding of the music—the flat board, front-porch, family sing-along’s, the smoky, bluesy, chicken-wired Speakeasies and Honkey-Tonks that demanded secret knocks and special codes of their often illiterate clientele, the near ecstatic emotions captured by the pianists and singers in the fiery little country churches that you stagger into a sinner and walk out of a saint—and fuse it with something brand new that makes Miller so utterly unique, extraordinary and necessary if you’re making a disc of Americana.. Indeed, Buddy Millers embodies all that the gloriously mixed-up, hospitable mongrel that American Music can and should be.

And so too regarding his tenure at High Tone, four records on which Miller crafted and covered grinding, foot-stomping honky-tonk romps, “high, sad and lonesome” brokenhearted country ballads, fiery, drinkin’ and cheatin’ song, and get in the car she can’t hurt me when I’m gone rockabilly, and even a few plaintive, sentimental “revivalist” songs of worship and praise.

But if Miller’s High Tone catalogue testifies to his range, his latest disc (and first with his new label, New West), Universal United House of Prayer, finds Miller actually testifying, embracing the Gospel song to create a disc that is profoundly, courageously and surprisingly subversive. Moreover, this disc is also important-- and profoundly so too--a record of uncompromised moral integrity that stands unflinching in its praise and protest, all while avoiding any of the pedantic, predictable or just plain dull that too often marks most contemporary “protest” records--or “praise” discs for that matter.

It would be easy to short-change Universalas a simple celebration of Miller’s faith. What seems like simply Miller’s testimony also serves as an unflinching critique of the Christianity he has both wholeheartedly embraced and its too-narrow focus on the salvation of the soul while ignoring the poor, the lost, and the broken.

Indeed, Miller’s record of old-fashioned revivalist hymnody is the best anti-war/protest disc since Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On?

Universal begins with Marvin too, finding its musical soul somewhere between the clapboard steps of the old country churches and the smoky, back road speakeasies that wrestled so intensely for Gaye’s soul. To ensure this unique musical alchemy, Miller invited Regina and Ann McCrary (daughters of the Rev. Sam McCreary, founder of The Fairfield Four), to sing on every track. Their ecstatic, exuberant, near-orgasmic wails and moans, suggestive of old-fashioned, Pentecostal, Holy Ghost power, give the disc an authenticity and desperation that suggests that “a higher power” is immanent.

But Miller’s embrace of the handkerchief-waving gospel song doesn’t so much showcase either his own faith or the genre itself. Rather, it subverts our expectations of both of them. Miller’s “testimony” is as terrifying as it is uplifting (and it is uplifting), his exuberance tempered by his realization that in our worship we encounter the God of justice and righteousness. Our celebration and praise may be genuinely ebullient, but it brings a sense of calling with it too, a calling that echoes throughout the record and all of history too.

This collection of low-slung, bluesy, rockabilly Gospel is genuinely, biblically prophetic, if only because it understands and demands that we do not worship in a vacuum, that are costs in praising the “prince of peace” when, outside, we puff our chests and celebrate an questionable war.

And so Buddy opens Universal with Mark Heard’s “Worry Too Much”--all self-doubt, desperation and forward-looking fearfulness-- setting a mood that suggests Miller might be wondering whether the bright, rosy, consumerist paradise promised to we middling classes might actually be a little less promising, especially since the “Higher Power’s” ability to “shelter” him is proclaimed under the banner of kindness the Creator makes pretty damned clear is offered first to the least, the last, the lost. Even when singing exuberant praise, Miller’s a troubled soul, asking--nay, begging-- in his song “Is That You?,” co-written with wife Julie as an extended prayer for discernment and guidance, for some--any--sense that he is on the right track and God is indeed speaking amidst the cacophony that is this world.

This inversion of expectations--think of the certainty that President Bush brings to everything he says about God--finds Miller’s religiosity much closer to the late Johnny Cash than to, say, Toby Keith. The latter, like his afore mentioned Commander in Chief, exudes confidence, obliviously certain who the good and bad guys are--so certain in fact that he’s spending his war-time tax cut on just the right pair of devil/terrorist/evil-doer ass-kickin’ boots.

Miller, however? He’s not so sure, and would rather stay that way than fuck things up the way that the certain people have.

And so there’s no grandstanding, flag waving, fist shaking, audience baiting, self-righteous brow-beating or FUDC t-shirts when Buddy plays, only an exquisite, heart-wrenching, crescendo-rising, nine minute version of the oft-over-sung and under-realized Dylan classic “God on our Side,” grounded in a simple, profound humility that finds Miller’s most certain sentiments in his assertion that we need all the help we can get.

The publicity materials for Universal suggest the record company has a big dose of the proto-typical liberal nervousness that arises when artists who are neither black or “white trash poor” play songs of faith they might actually believe. In a funny and pathetic kind of reverse religious, racial and social profiling (and discrimination too), the “bio” assures us that while this is actually a “Gospel” record, it is not, in any way (their italics) a CCM disc.

No duh.

Not that secular radio will do much better with Universal. With the notable exception of Rickie Lee Jones’ Evening of My Best Day, Miller shames most contemporary would-be protest singers, whose maddening caricatures and self-righteous self-pleasuring that serves only to assure only fellow anti-warriors that they are smarter, wiser, better, truer, and more American than their opponents. (And yes, you get a gold star if you’re connecting the dots and realizing that this also describes CCM--Contemporary Christian Music--or CLM--Contemporary Lesbian Music--for that matter, to a “t”. There’s a dissertation for some poor sap studying linguistics and contemporary anthropological rhetoric.)

And this is where Miller most distinguishes himself. Universal’s wounded, worldly and deeply political Gospel song cycle is a rare, brave record that is both uncompromising and genuinely inclusive. If there is justice in this world (and there isn’t), this disc would place Miller among American music’s most elite artists: Dylan, Springsteen, Guthrie….

But Buddy doesn’t give a rip. Indeed, throughout the 11 songs on Universal United House of Prayer, Miller’s ego is thoroughly prone, his considerable talents offered only to serve the songs, the questions they raise, and the Lord whose praises they sing.

Indeed, Miller knows his place, and knows that in that place standing for justice, truth, grace and, finally, peace, is costly. And worth it.

****

Pierce Pettis, Great Big World Compass Records, Gary West, Producer

First, when talking about this disc, let’s dispense with any pretense of objectivity. Pierce and Michelle Pettis are among the best of our friends, holding a place in our hearts cemented by an hysterical typo in a PRISM review his disc Everything Matters, and a moment of shared embarrassment and outrage when the wife of a famous social advocate interrupted a benefit concert so her husband could speak and go to bed. (No, it wasn’t Tony.) Now, having “declared my subjectivities” let me say this about Great Big World: After nearly 20 years recording for a national audience, and writing hits for some of the biggest stars in the adult music, this is Pierce’s best record. Smart, lovely, heartbreaking, sensual (even erotic), full of faith and godly yearning, and, when all is said and done, close to perfect, it’s worth every single penny. The best analogy I can give you is food: We ate recently ate at Mario Batali’s Babbo in NYC (a gift to celebrate my wife’s birthday), the same weekend we grazed over Happy Hour in a French bistro in midtown. (This is, by the way, one of the best ways to eat for cheap at otherwise very expensive supper joints.)

The difference between a Battali meal and classic French cuisine?

In classic French cuisine you are eating the recipes, not the food.

I love French food, but hey, let’s face it. It is elaborate, intricate and delicious; exceptional ingredients are prepared precisely, elegantly cooked with care, then covered with sauces and creams that have been simmered and reduced for hours and sometimes days. It's good, but the core ingredients can get lost—remember, the French invented fancy sauces to hide their rotten meat. But not so Batalli and his Babbo, where it's all about the ingredients and never about the gravy.

When my entrée arrived (a braised rabbit) we talked for 5 minutes about the peas that came with it. Honestly, the peas--fresh, whole, unadorned. And we were in awe.

Everything else too, the same. Earthy, sweet, rich, bitter, whatever… exceptional alone, perfect when complemented with its pair. Honestly, I could go on and on (and I will soon with a piece about the weekend). Meanwhile, there’s a lesson to be applied this singer….

Simple things, perfectly paired.

That's why Great Big World, the latest record from Alabaman Pierce Pettis works so profoundly. On this disc, Pierce comes to his musical kitchen with a great cadre of standard ingredients—his songs are smart, lovely, and exquisitely simple, unadorned with any fancy production tricks, musical gadgets, or attempts to sounds he could never duplicate in concert, where the focus is solely upon his guitar (which he plays with exceptional skill), his voice (which is rich with pathos and emotion), and first and foremost, the songs.

Not that there isn’t instrumentation. There is, it just that Pierce and producer Garry West rarely veer far from the sounds you can make on a big, gothic southern front porch: banjo’s, string and electric bass, fiddles, guitars, and small percussion sets (far different from big percussive sound) provide the disc’s foundation, occasionally enhanced by an old Hammond b-3 or lap steel. The resulting sound is organic, playful, and delicious, arranged to always bring the focus to the singer and the story he tells.

Only here—where the writing is so exceptionally, meticulously focused and precise in its ability to evoke the most vivid of images does Pierce come close to showing off. The songs on Great Big World are profoundly good, conjuring worlds of young love (“Craker Jack Ring”), the sensual (“Song of Songs” and “Rodeo Around the World”), history (Pierce—“Alabama 1959”), history (as in studying, it’s so sequential—“Leonardo”), growing up (the baby—“You’re Gonna Need This Memory”) and just plain worldly wonder (the title cut).

A song like “Alabama 1959” is nearly terrifying in its ability to breathe life into its lyrics, dropping listeners into the center of the last few years of Jim Crow and all the emotional and spiritual ambivalence that it evoked (and provoked) from believers struggling with the way things “have always been.”

Even “Another Day in Limbo,” the Mark Heard song with which Pierce begins the disc (a tribute now four five records deep) finds Pierce pulling the reins back on a song frequently interpreted with a throat full of anger, finding resignation and exasperation more than anger and resistence resistance. It’s a bold move in its own way, allowing us to see how most of us non-Che Guevera types actually live “pre-Kingdom”—casually, calmly, with only a hint of fear or genuine outrage.

It’s this kind of simplicity that makes Great Big World one of the year’s better records.

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