Now I don't mean to depict him as some gloomy, brooding sort (after all, this is a guy who has committed large chunks of dialogue from the Steve Martin movie The Man with Two Brains to memory), but Miller does takes his music seriously--seriously enough that the little goblin self-doubt seems to spend a lot of time perched on Miller's shoulders. OK, maybe it's only some healthy self-questioning, but there's definitely more going on than just Miller's self-deprecating sense of humor.
It's not a stretch to think that growing up on a farm in Swoope, Va., with miles between neighbors helped foster all this self-hyphen stuff. "People will talk about 'I'm from a small town' this and 'small town' that, and I'm like 'I'm from the fucking middle of nowhere,'" offers Miller, from his Knoxville, Tenn., home, when asked about his Shenandoah Valley childhood. "Nobody appreciates that until you go there." His wife, upon her first visit to the family homestead, remarked, "It's like the desert." "And it is," confirms Miller. "There's nothing there. ... The newest thing you can see is in Buffalo Gap, which is about 10 miles over. Where there's a gap in the mountains, there's a radio station. They just started, so they built a tower and there's a blinking light. That's the only thing you can see."
It was in that setting--well, minus that interloping light--that Miller first started making music. "I spent hours and hours playing guitar and singing to myself," he explains. "There was certainly no opportunity to join a band or to play with anyone else, for that matter." In college at William & Mary, Miller finally did find someone to play with, forming a duo named the Skeletones. After graduation, he landed in Knoxville, where he found an every-Friday solo gig at a club named Hawkeye's, a date he kept for four years. He also traveled all over the Southeast in a '75 Ford van, getting opening slots because, in his words, he was "solo and acoustic and cheap." (The dryly poignant "Napoleon," captured on the Bubbapalooza compilation, remains the only documented artifact from those days.)
Next up for Miller was the V-roys, a twangpop quartet that was Steve Earle's first signing for a fledgling label he was calling E-Squared, and a band that sounded like the Plimsouls on Jack Daniels or maybe Roger Miller hijacking the Replacements. With Miller as stage-right frontguy and guitarist and Mic Harrison (now of Superdrag) holding down the same duties stage-left, the V-roys released three terrific albums, capped by a live recording that had Miller and company asking yet another question: Are You Through Yet?
As of January 2000, they were, and Miller returned to solo gigging for a while, mixing Loudon Wainwright III-ish folk-rock with acoustic pub-rock and topping it off with smart, frequently personal lyrics. Along the way, he self-released a live disc titled, you guessed it, Are You With Me? Then in the spring of 2001, he started playing with a band again, dubbed the Commonwealth, with the album Thus Always to Tyrants soon following. Overseen by veteran roots-rock producer R.S. Field (Webb Wilder, R.B. Morris) and released on Durham's Sugar Hill Records, the album was driven by two main themes: dealing with where you come from and, even more importantly, whom you come from. The opener "Across the Line" was inspired by Miller's years growing up near the Virginia/West Virginia border, while the songs "Dear Sarah"--for which Miller borrowed details from letters written by his great-great-grandfather during the Civil War--and the exceptional "Daddy Raised a Boy" stared the second theme square in the face.
Miller is now close to finishing the follow-up (still on Sugar Hill but with a different Commonwealth lineup), which he's co-producing with keyboard player Eric Fritch and modeling after Neil Young records like On the Beach and American Stars 'n' Bars. "The kind of records where they sound like they're gonna fall apart, but they don't quite. And the songs sound that way too," he explains about his favorite Young records, before turning to his work-in-progress, his critical eye once again pointing inward. "I don't have the greatest songs that I think I'm capable of writing. But I had a batch of songs, so we just did 'em. Slowly, surely, I think it's working its way out. But I can fool myself."
One doesn't want to argue with Miller, but, dammit, these are great songs. At the center of this yet-untitled work -- although he trots out, in typical fashion, Not That Well-Written as a possibility--is "Amtrak Crescent," a top-shelf train song and longtime staple of his solo shows. Another standout is a newer song, "Angels Dwell Among Us," featuring guest vocals from Patty Griffin and a chorus that declares, "Saints alive, saints be praised/Angels dwell among us still these days." There's also an instrumental that was recorded on Young's birthday, which is also the birthday of Booker T. Jones of Booker T. and the MGs fame. That can't help but be a good sign.
In between recording sessions, Miller has again been playing some solo shows, including several where he opened for Dave Alvin, a performer that Miller says can "blend the folk and the rock without blinking an eye." It's a comment that could be applied to Miller as well, and, also like Alvin, Miller shines as both a bandleader and an acoustic troubadour.
He'll be in the latter mode on Feb. 23 when he plays the inaugural show of Durham's new Manbites Dog Music series. And come that night, Miller will ask that inevitable question. And my response will be, as it's always been, a resounding "yes."