Preacher’s pulpit serves Miller well

It's easy to believe a divine hand guided Buddy Miller during the creation of Universal United House of Prayer — it comes together almost too perfectly.

Whether it was imparted upon Miller from on high or not, Universal is the best album of the 51-year-old country music maverick's career. The veteran singer/songwriter — never afraid to branch out stylistically — brings his soulful, Nashville-trained whine to 11 tracks drenched in Southern gospel.

The results are stunningly authentic. Miller, who gets big support from vocalists Regina and Ann McCrary, powers through his own fiery shout-and-call spirituals ("Don't Wait," "Fall on the Rock") and haunting gospel-inflected folk ("Is That You"). Universal's covers, especially Mark Heard's mid-tempo rocker "Worry Too Much" and Bob Dylan's still poignant folk-protest epic "With God On Our Side," add modern social relevance to an album steeped in church-house tradition.

Only time will tell if Universal ends up as Miller's career masterpiece. It could be, because Miller's set the bar ridiculously high.

Grade: A