Scott Miller’s close-up mug shot (right) hints at the “mother-pleasing Southern gentleman” side of the Knoxville, Tenn., songwriter, but his songs also portray a whiskey-swilling good ‘ol boy, albeit always polite. On stage, Miller apologizes for himself, promising the crowd that “There’s only a few more!” He’ll often introduce himself as Al Stewart or Gern Blandsten, “or if I’m sucking, one of my peers I don’t like.”
Drawing a long note on his harp, he plays a walk on the guitar and sings, “My words are all true/I’m lying to you/but the lies that you hear are all mine.” Miller’s unassuming yet poignant original songs place him in an upper echelon of songwriters with the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Greg Brown. But he’s too humble to ever admit it.
Thursday’s gig at the Village Tavern is a rare excursion to the coast for the bona fide Blue Ridge bard. Raised on a farm in the community of Swoope, Va., (“sort of like the Amish, with drinking”), his upbringing is one of those idyllic American stories that keep getting harder to find.
“Man, there was nothing. Big doings for me was when my mom would let me take my bike down to the church parking lot that was paved,” says Miller. “I always hesitate telling these stories about growing up because it sounds like I’m re-creating some 19th century novel. People say, ‘You did not grow up like that,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry man, but I did,’ and I’ve spent 20 years trying to catch up with society.'”
Miller, 38, moved to Knoxville at age 21 to pursue music full-time, and he’s managed to avoid wage employment for the duration. A proud Virginian, the first album with his current band, The Commonwealth, was titled the Virginia state motto: Thus Always to Tyrants. The album displayed an unpretentious swagger with songs like “Across the Line” — “Left my home in the valley/Put the mountains to my back/There’s nothing wrong with where I come from/Sometimes it’s meant to be just that.”
Tyrants‘ follow-up, Upside Downside, features Tim O’Brien and Patty Griffin as guests. Miller tells the story of being so excited by singing with Griffin that he promptly wrecked the car while driving her back from the studio. They weren’t hurt, but he jokes, “Can you imagine the photographs? Patty Griffin with a seat belt across her throat. I’d be a marked man in the Americana world. I couldn’t go to chuck wagons anywhere.”
Miller’s 2006 release, Citation, was produced by Jim Dickinson, the legendary knob twister who also spawned two-thirds of the North Mississippi All-Stars. Miller’s currently writing songs for a 2008 studio effort and is touring in front of a live album, Reconstruction, due out in April.
The eight-show East Coast jaunt that concludes in Charleston this week is rare both in that it’s a solo tour and that he’s traveling by car. He wrote the song “Amtrak Crescent” before he’d ever ridden the legendary rail from New Orleans to New York, but has since compensated by organizing three tours, (with band), along the rail lines.
“We’ve done the Crescent twice, the City of New Orleans once, and the Texas Eagle, from Chicago to Ft. Worth,” he says.
The song that spawned those tours describes a poor boy fleeing New Orleans on the train, with references to places along the route: “There ain’t no ham like the Birming-ham/To make a fella want to stay in Alabam’ … Better say Manassas if you say Bull Run/Or in Virginia you won’t get along with anyone,” and the repeated, “When life goes wrong/This train goes on.”
Miller’s ardor for relics of days gone by reaches far beyond the railroad. When he writes a war song, it’s about the Civil War. His basement is filled with a collection of old typewriters. He’s an Edward Abbey enthusiast. It’s hard times for a country boy trying to maintain a passing way of life. Just the line, “Saturday night the only thing I pray is that my baby looks right and the cops the other way,” from “Ciderville Saturday Night” is enough to invoke familiar memories for anyone who grew up somewhere slightly off the radar.
Scott Miller and the Commonwealth had a near brush with fame when the Blue Collar Comedy TV show recruited them as house band, but the show’s quick demise and their brief airtime brought them “nary a fan.”
“Everybody’s really uptight in television,” says Miller. “It’s just like Murder, She Wrote.”
Broader fame may still be in his future, but for now Miller’s content to keep singing his songs, honest and passionate, to the folks who come out for a brief trip to Appalachia through his stories. “I’ve got a pretty loyal fan base,” he says. “I get fans like I lose them; one at a time.”