Fifth solo outing for fiftysomething Nashville maestro MILLER’S MORE ILLUSTRIOUS work as guitarist/musical director with Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle has sometimes put his solo output in the shade. A pity, because there’s much to discover in the Ohio native’s back pages. Earle swears he’s “the best country singer working today”, while Robbie Fulks calls him country’s only living auteur. Midnight And Lonesome (2002) beautifully distilled the moonstruck honky tonk of a relatively late-starting recording career (1995 debut Your Love And Other Lies came after years on the road in bluegrass bands), but this is his most complete yet.
Like Rodney Crowell and Dave Alvin, Miller seems to be undergoing a mid-life stock-take but, rather than reaching out to folk-blues or old-time country, gospel lights his way. Indeed, he blends styles as expertly here as Ray Charles did on his 1962 landmark Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music. There are strong echoes here of The Staple Singers, classic Memphis soul and the full-throated harmonies of Nashville’s Fairfield Four (guest vocalists Regina and Ann McCrary are scions of the latter’s Reverend Sam). Dylan’s influence is here, too, particularly the less-celebrated Slow Train Coming! Saved! Shot Of Love triptych?although it’s Miller’s remarkable nine-minute reworking of “With God On Our Side” from The Times They Are A-Changin’ that acts as centrepiece. His vocal and emotional range make it entirely his own, bringing added poignancy to the pathetic political lie of the Almighty as selective cheerleader for countries at war.
Concern over cultural intolerance is apparent everywhere, but it’s a record that’s ultimately redeemed by his own faith. Both the Louvin Brothers’ “There’s A Higher Power” and the churchy ecstasy of “Shelter Me” (one of four co-written with wife Julie) are as much affirmation as sanctuary. The pilgrim-soul of “Is That You?” is breathtaking, while the tender “Wide River To Cross” is a brittle duet with Emmylou Harris, acting as flipside to “Don’t Wait”‘s double-fisted rock-out. Essential.