Universal United House of Prayer

The fifth solo album by the Ohio-born, Nashville-based singer and guitarist is a thematic album, a collection of songs about God or the soul. After his last album (2002's Midnight and Lonesome), Miller wanted to do something different and since he was so disturbed by things going on in his life and in the world, he decided to express his faith on record. The album's handful of cover songs appear early on the album and set its tone, beginning with "Worry Too Much," a cover of a 1991 song by Miller's late friend and colleague Mark Heard, and continuing with a bouncy fiddle-driven version of "There's a Higher Power" by the gospel and country duo The Louvin Brothers. But it's the next cover song which helps to set this album apart from other country-gospel albums. Miller takes on the early Dylan epic "With God on Our Side" in all its nine-minute, nine-verse glory. The song examines six eras of war in American history and concludes, "If God's on our side/He'll stop the next war." Clearly, such a song carries an implicit commentary on the Iraq War, but its inclusion on this set of songs (and the impassioned rendition Miller gives it) also signals that Universal United House of Prayer is no by-the-numbers gospel treatment. Beyond the early-appearing covers, however, much of the album is original material, including four fine tracks co-written with his wife Julie (like the excellent rocker "Shelter Me"). There are also two stand-outs written by Miller and friend Jim Lauderdale ("Don't Wait," "Returning"), plus one penned with Victoria Williams. Listening to the passionate live-feeling gospel centered by some great guitar playing (and tremendous gospel backing vocals from Regina and Ann McCrary on all but two songs) you'll know why the album is nominated for a Grammy for Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album. Miller's typically great guitar playing and deft touch with his material makes this album praiseworthy in itself.

Mike Sauter, WYEP Music Director