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Gospel according to Buddy Miller

When your songs are as good as his, there's no need to put a label on them

Nashville singer-songwriter Buddy Miller isn't one for making a big fuss over his music, no matter how good it is.

Take, for instance, his latest Grammy-nominated album, "Universal United House of Prayer," which offers further proof of why Miller is one of the most respected musicians working in a town where there are more song stylists per square mile than anywhere else on the planet.

Despite the presence of songs such as the Louvin Brothers' country-spiritual standard "There's a Higher Power" and Bob Dylan's Cold War-era protest anthem "With God on Our Side" -- not to mention the disc's title -- Miller doesn't consider his new disc a gospel record, or a political statement.

Big, bold-lettered categories like those are simply not the modest man's style -- too cut and dried, too presumptuous, too egocentric. Miller prefers to think of the work as merely the creative outcome of what he says has been "a real tough last couple of years" for him and for his wife and collaborator, singer-songwriter Julie Miller.

"My wife's brother passed away in a rather sudden way -- he was struck by lightning in the same spot where he had a crippling dirt-bike accident on their property in Texas when he was a teenager," Miller said over the phone from his Nashville home.

"Some 20 years later, the day before his birthday on Sept. 11, two years ago. In the same spot." Miller slowly repeated the words, mulling the circumstances as though he still could not believe them.

As if this personal tragedy weren't enough for the Millers, events on the world stage left the 51-year-old guitarist feeling frustrated, helpless, and, in his own quiet way, angry. "With the [Iraqi] war going on and the feeling of God [becoming] the property of some political party, I was starting to get a feeling that really bothered me," Miller said. "I guess those things running side by side influenced the record."

He conceded that "House of Prayer" is a reaction and response to what he believes is the Bush administration's invocation of religious tenets and symbols for its own ends. "I'm a person of faith, and I think there are a lot of people who are [religious] also who don't subscribe to what's going on."

Miller's spellbinding "Is That You?" (co-written with Julie) takes a far more humble tack, seeking knowledge and truth from a mysterious, all-knowing deity that he knows is under no obligation to answer him back. What's more, Miller sounds like a man who doesn't really expect an answer. That tune dovetails into "Returning," a bluesy shuffle soaked in Phil Madeira's pulsing Hammond B3 organ and saturated with Miller's typically trenchant electric guitar and a whole lot of soul.

But surely the disc's showcase is Dylan's nine-minute-plus epic "With God on Our Side" -- a song written in 1963 that sounds as relevant and topical today as it did four decades ago. Ironic, then, that the track almost didn't make it onto the album.

"Since the war started, I was doing that song every night onstage and couldn't get it out of my head," said Miller, whose own song catalog has been covered by the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack, and Brooks & Dunn.

"I felt like I needed to record it, but I almost left it off the record," Miller said. "I thought, 'Is this hitting people over the head too much?' But then I felt that it had to be on there -- nothing says it like that song."

A core strength of the album lies in the powerful vocal accompaniment of gospel singers Regina and Ann McCrary, daughters of the Rev. Sam McCrary, who founded the legendary Fairfield Four gospel group. The McCrary sisters' soulful tones not only lend dignity and depth to the disc's themes but smudge boundaries among country, folk, blues, and gospel.

Singer-guitarist Michael Tarbox, who leads the Boston folk-blues outfit the Tarbox Ramblers, says what makes Miller special is his musical sincerity and his stylistic reach.

"The thing about Buddy is that the guy has such integrity and is so earnest," says Tarbox, whose band has opened for Miller on some tour dates. "The guy just knows what makes a song tick, how to put it across, and how to keep it real. And his wife, Julie, is the same way."

Although Miller's creative partnership with his wife (Julie also records solo albums) has been a fruitful one -- the pair received a 2001 Grammy nomination for best contemporary folk album for their "Buddy and Julie Miller" disc -- he confesses that living with his songwriting partner can make for "a tension convention around here. . . . But I think she's an incredible writer."

Woven into the fabric of Miller's music is a lifetime of experiences forged from the years he's spent alongside icons such as Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle.

"I still play with Emmylou, and it's such an amazing thing for me every night," he says. "I'm such a fan, and she's such a friend. She's so hungry to hear music, and it's good to be around someone who's always open and looking. Besides, just to get that voice in my monitor . . . You learn how to create a frame and how to play sparsely so the song and that voice can come through."

Miller's less-is-more musicianship and his smart, sturdy songs have made him a hot commodity in Nashville. "Getting the songs recorded by other artists has been a wonderful thing in helping us to live, but we don't make records with that in mind," he says. "We just make our little records in our house, and if something happens with them, that's great. There's a lot of great music here, but I don't know most of the stuff on the radio. I just don't listen to it. We stay in our own little world, and things are working out."

Buddy Miller and his band play the Paradise on Sunday. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Ollabelle opens. Tickets $15. Call 617-931-2000 or visit www.teapartyconcerts.com.

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