While mainstream country continues to purvey a megaplatinum blandness, alternative country -- or Americana, or insurgent country, or whatever you want to call it -- is still thriving, artistically if not commercially. And one of the most distinctive, though largely unheralded, singer-songwriters working on the fringes of Nashville these days is Buddy Miller. His first two albums, "Your Love and Other Lies" (1995) and "Poison Love" (1997), were masterpieces of country soul, filled with twangy songs about passion, longing, pain and suffering -- the great themes of both hard country and classic soul music.
His newest, "Cruel Moon," recorded in his Nashville home studio, is as good as the first two. As usual, Miller is assisted by his equally talented wife, Julie, who wrote or co-wrote many of the songs on the album and also sings harmony vocals on quite a few. Other alt-country soul mates, including Jim Lauderdale, Kim Richey, Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris, pitch in. (Miller plays guitar in Spyboy, Harris' backup band.) But Miller, who has a raw, bluesy voice that borrows as much from Otis Redding as it does from Hank Williams, is the main attraction.
It's clear from the chilling first song -- "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?" -- about a jealous man who murders his wife, that we're far from Shania Twain country. "Now it's just me and a knife/And I'm so brokenhearted," Miller wails over the plaintive, minor-key plucking of a banjo, "I just wait in the dark here/With my dearly departed/Did my ring burn your finger?/Did my love weigh you down?/Was a promise too much to keep around?"
"Love Match," written by Paul Kennerly and sung with Earle, lightens things up somewhat, even if it does liken a love affair to a boxing match. ("She's a heartbreak champion of the love match.") Miller turns "I'm Gonna Be Strong," a Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil composition that was a bombastic 1964 hit for Gene Pitney, into a lovely country ballad about losing a love and trying to maintain some dignity in the process. And in the title song, a stunning duet with Harris, the moon is a willing accomplice in a heartbreak: "Oh cruel moon you shine so bright/And act like everything's all right/You shine as if there's nothing wrong/You shine on down like she's not gone."
The driving, edgy "Somewhere Trouble Don't Go" shows why some critics have said that the Millers are at their best when they're singing together. (The song ends with a loud amplifier buzz, a dig, perhaps, at Nashville's obsession with slickness.) On the pure, simple "In Memory of My Heart," they pay their respects to the great Louvin Brothers, whose tight harmony singing is an obvious influence.
For "Poison Love," Miller recorded a knockout version of Redding's "That's How Strong My Love Is." Too bad Redding never got to record "Sometimes I Cry," a country soul ballad written by Miller, his wife and Lauderdale. It would have been right at home on "The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads." "Cruel Moon" ends with Miller doing a cover of a lesser-known soul number, "It's Been a Change," a gospel-infused song written by Roebuck "Pop" Staples and originally recorded in 1967 by Solomon Burke, someone who also knew a thing or two about how soulful honest country music can be. (Burke once covered Bobby Bare's classic "Detroit City.")
A few years ago, an album titled "Rhythm Country & Blues" tried, with mixed results, to demonstrate the essential link between country and soul. (Lyle Lovett duets with Al Green on "Funny How Time Slips Away"; Sam Moore sings with Conway Twitty on "Rainy Night in Georgia.") But the country-soul connection comes through in nearly every song Miller sings, even the twangiest ones. He may be a country singer, but he's a soul man at heart.