Buddy Miller and the Shape of Christian Liturgy: Cruciform Music to Live By

When I was a kid, the first book of the Bible I learned to find on my own was the Psalms. It’s right in the middle. Place your thumbs in the center of the pages and pull. As far as my Christian faith is concerned, all the crosses and comforts particular to my journey continue to rest in this ancient song book. The Christian life pivots on (and is summarized in) the Psalms. It records the liturgical shape of life that is embodied and fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Psalms are the form that have shaped the life of the whole church since its inception, and the broad wisdom of the church has shaped its worship in the same way. The Psalms beckon individual believers to fill the form with as many meanings as there are Christians. Meaning…truth? Ya, these are like grasping at air when sought by the individual outside of the context of form and tradition, but the Psalms suggest that meaning outside of existential whim can be experienced (not necessarily understood) when attached to a revealed form that becomes so familiar that it is like breathing. The fruit of this orientation is humility and authenticity. Maybe you have come across a few people who embody this kind of thing? The kind of thing that is hard to put a finger on, but is clearly evident in what their lives produce.

I haven’t met him, but I think Buddy Miller is probably a guy like that. An artist deeply familiar with the hard and hopeful contours of the gospel. I have seen him perform live over half a dozen times over the last 6 years. He is one of the few artists I know of that clearly exudes a seamless connection between honest faith and art, one of those rare artists that instinctively understands the importance of form and tradition. As a songwriter he is the epitome of the Americana tradition and shapes his tunes in a way that speaks to the heart of who he is as a man of Christian faith. All of this while maintaining his reputation as a cornerstone of the entire Americana music community. Robert Plant, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss are just a few of the artists with whom he has worked and played along side over the last few years.

Like I said, I have seen him perform live quite a few times, but I was struck by the liturgical shape of his set at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival on Saturday. I realized that every set I have seen him play has taken the same basic form. Now, I don’t think Buddy comes from a particularly “liturgical” Christian tradition, but his set list on Saturday took on the broad shape of historic Christian worship (Invocation, Confession, Assurance, Response, Word, Table, Benediction).

This basic historic form is rooted in the Psalms that scholars split into three types: orientation, disorientation, reorientation. The Christian life is lived between these states of being. Psalm 90 is a good example of this progression within a single Psalm. It moves from the meditation of the everlasting love of God (vv.1-5), to a lamentation over the human condition (vv. 6-12), and ends with a plea for God’s blessing and assurance of His love (vv.13-17). This Psalm, “…seeks both wisdom in the face of human limitation (v.12) and the kind of divine blessing that offers both delight and prosperity of the fruit of human labor (v. 14-17).”

The narrative of Buddy Miller’s entire set (and, indeed, all of his music) fits perfectly within these categories and their progression. The form in which Buddy Miller presents his music fills particular tunes with added meaning. Real meaning…the kind that remains elusive enough to keep the listener searching for the context of an even bigger story. As a result, his well formed four-minute nuggets of Americana are never forced to bear too much weight on their own.

Buddy Miller understands form and tradition. He embodies it and makes it live again. So, without further explanation, here is the set list he played on Saturday along with my brief notes.  Note: Several of the tunes he played with Jim Lauderdale and have not been released yet.

Buddy Miller Setlist (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Oct. 6, 2012)

There’s a Higher Power

  • Orientation/Invocation/Call to Repentance
  • Acknowledging God’s presence and call to submit to His rule.
  • Lyric Excerpt: Go tell them people lost in sin,there’s a higher power/They need not fear the works of men. there’s a higher power/Believe in him who rest on high, there’s a higher power/Unless they do they’ll surely die, there’s a higher power/Lay down your soul ’cause Jesus bought it.

Shelter Me Lord

  • Orientation/Invocation/Assurance of Pardon
  • Invoking God’s aid in the light of human need; acknowledgement of the human condition. God’s ability to protect
  • Psalm 16
  • Lyric Excerpt: Hide me underneath your wings/ Hide me deep inside your heart/In your refuge – cover me/The world can shake/But Lord I’m making you my hiding place

Gasoline and Matches

  • Disorientation
  • Tension that results because of the Fall and the need for reconciliation.
  • Patty Griffin’ s guest vocals on this tune affirming what is broken between man and woman as a metaphor for all the brokenness we experience (Genesis 3).
  • Lyric Excerpt: The resistance of a strong willed man’s in ashes/You and me are gasoline and matches

That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)

  • Confession/Assurance of Pardon
  • Classic cover song
  • Lyric excerpt: “Oh, Lord above, don’t you hear me cryin’/Tears are rollin’ down my eyes. Send in a cloud with a silver linin’, Take me to paradise. Show me that river, Take me across,  wash all my troubles away”

I Lost My Job of Loving You

  • Disorientation, Confession
  • Confessing how we have broken our relationships.

The Train That Carried My Gal From Town

  • Disorientation, Reorientation
  • w/Jim Lauderdale (not yet released)

It Hurts Me

  • Disorientation, Confession
  • Hurt that is a result of our condition (hurting God and each other)
  • w/Jim Lauderdale (not yet released)

Down South in New Orleans

  • Reorientation
  • w/Jim Lauderdale (not yet released)

Does My Ring Burn Your Finger

  • Disorientation then Reorientation
  • Faithfulness and faithlessness in the midst of Covenant relationship.
  • Lyric Excerpt: Does my ring burn your finger/Did my love weigh you down?/Was the promise too much to keep around?/Did my love weigh you down?/Was the promise too much to keep around?

Burning the Midnight Oil (Dolly Parton cover w/Emmylou Harris)

  • Reorientation, Response
  • Joy of reconciliation and life in right relationship. Sacramental nature of forgiveness found in relationship and natural joys.
  • Lyric excerpt: “Tomorrow we’ll meet here in the same place/Where love and desires just won’t wait/ In each other’s arms we’ll dream for a little while/Then when it’s time to leave it’ll nearly drive us wild”

Wide River to Cross

  • Reorientation
  • Seeing through a glass darkly and aching for the “…sons of God to be revealed” (1 Cor. 13 and Romans 8). Allusion to the waters of baptism. Baptismal waters definitely a theme in Miller’s music.
  • Lyric Excerpt: But I cannot look back now, I’ve come too far to turn around/And there’s still a race ahead that I must run/I’m only halfway home, I gotta journey on/To where I’ll find the things that I have lost/I’ve come a long long road still I’ve got miles to go/I’ve got a wide wide river to cross

Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go

  • Reorientation, Assurance of Pardon
  • Lead me not into temptation. Plea for God’s blessing and final salvation.
  • Need for community (Buddy brought up all his friends to play on this tune)
  • Lyric Excerpt: You know you could end up dead/Sleeping in the devil’s bed/Take me take me somewhere trouble don’t go/Make me make me someone trouble don’t know

All My Tears

  • Reorientation
  • Eucharist
  • Benediction, acknowledgement, and final peace found in,  “…the light of Jesus face.”
  • Written by his wife Julie Miller
  • Lyric Excerpt: Gold and silver blind the eye/Temporary riches lie/Come and eat from heaven’s store/Come and drink and thirst no more/So weep not for me my friend/When my time below does end/For my life belongs to him/Who will raise the dead again/It don’t matter where you bury me/I’ll be home and I’ll be free/It don’t matter where I lay/All my tears be washed away

Yes, all of this in the context of thousands of Californians gathered for a day of music, drinking, and smoking weed in Golden Gate Park. I gotta say, I am seldom reduced to tears, but I couldn’t stop them from flowing halfway through “Shelter Me”. It was as if Buddy, along with all of us, was explicitly asking God to shelter him at that moment. Everyone understood this and no one complained. I dare say, all of us in the crowd realized our need and were led to acknowledge it as Buddy’s set progressed.

Here is a curated playlist of some of my favorite Buddy Miller tunes, many of which were included in Buddy’s set at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. The list progresses according to the narrative logic of historic Christian liturgy…the template fits so well. Buddy’s entire corpus tells a grand story to those who would take the time to listen.

Playlist – The Gospel According to Buddy Miller

Gathering and Call to Worship

  • There’s a Higher Power
  • Shelter Me Lord

Confession & Assurance
Confession:

  • Gasoline and Matches
  • Worry to Much
  • Does My Ring Burn Your Finger
  • The Selfishness of Man
  • Chalk

Assurance of Pardon

  • Hush, Sorrow

Response

  • Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go

Word

  • Fall on the Rock
  • Is that You

Table

  • Returning
  • My Love Will Follow You
  • That’s How Strong My Love is

Sending and Benediction

  • God’s Winged Horses
  • All My Tears