Tuesday, December 11, 2012

appalachian refugees (2001 wayback edition)

[My interview with ex-V-Roy Scott Miller originally ran in the online magazine Toast in 2001. Since Toast has long ago lived up to its name, I'm giving it a permanent home here at my blog. I'm still enormously proud of this piece. Enjoy!]

Scott Miller is in the passenger seat of my car as we take a left from Broadway to Fifth Avenue North in downtown Nashville. The Staunton, Virginia, native has made the drive from his adopted home city of Knoxville to Music City on this balmy Friday afternoon in May to wrap up preparations for the first tour in support of his debut solo album, Thus Always To Tyrants, due in stores in mid-June from Sugar Hill Records.

As we drive past the cathedral of country music’s past, the Ryman Auditorium, we run head-on into a disturbing reminder of country music’s present: the baleful, Damien-like stare of preteen "One Voice" phenomenon Billy Gilman, his visage looming from an enormous billboard that threatens to dwarf the Ryman. Miller exclaims, "Look at him! He’s one of the goddamn Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, I swear!" and I realize that I’m not the only person in the car whose soul feels the touch of icy fingers.

If anyone has the ability to stave off the Gilman-induced apocalypse, it’s Miller. As a member of the V-Roys and now as a solo artist, Miller has demonstrated a command of the fundamentals of country and bluegrass music. But rather than rendering his music with museum-piece formalism or, as per the current country radio trend, as power ballads in fiddle-and-Stetson disguise, Miller’s songs are supercharged with a white-hot emotional core. Whether the emotion manifests itself in wild-eyed rock guitar fury or in the quiet heartbreak of an exquisite ballad, Miller fully inhabits his creations in a way that’s compelling and captivating, providing his music with two qualities almost wholly missing from Music Row’s modern-day creations: genuine roots and genuine passion. In "Virginia Way" (from the V-Roys’ second and final album, All About Town), when he sings

This is where Grandaddy sat
In a big straw hat and a cigarette
This is where his daddy sat
In a big straw hat and a cigarette
Blue Ridge on the east side to protect me from the rain
And Appalachia’s loving arms to welcome me again

There’s something in the intonation of the vocals and the sound of his guitar picking behind them that goes beyond the words themselves, telling you everything about who he is, where he’s from, and what he’s about.

In fact, Miller originally conceived Thus Always To Tyrants as a song cycle with passages from "Virginia Way" woven throughout the record, and he performed the songs that way during his live shows in 1999 and the first half of 2000. "That was kinda my goal for [the album], to make it like a ‘phases and stages of the Redheaded Stranger.’ As I got in there, I knew it was gonna be tricky, because something like that can get really precious and heavy. It can get really precious if you really try to shove something like that down people’s throats. Do you have Quadrophenia, do you enjoy Quadrophenia? Sometimes a concept can get in the way. My plan was to use that ‘Virginia Way’ theme [he sings the melody of the verse] to lead in and out of songs." Miller ended up opting for a more subtle inclusion of "Virginia Way," reworking a few instrumental passages at the beginning and end of songs to include "Virginia Way"’s bluegrass-tinged melody. "I snuck it in different songs, and you can hear it" in "Across the Line," "Highland County Boy," and "Room on the Cross."

It’s the concerns of "Virginia Way" – identity, place, and, above all, responsibility – that are at the heart of Thus Always To Tyrants. From the protagonist of "Across the Line," who’s attempting to start over even though he knows "you take your troubles with you," to the Civil War soldiers facing obligation and mortality in "Dear Sarah" and "Highland County Boy," to the hellbound drunk driver of "Absolution," Miller’s characters are struggling with defining their roles as adults and being accountable for their actions.

Monday, December 3, 2012

you can't beat it

Pete Townshend last night. Photo by Karen Kraft
Before last night, I had not only never seen the Who live, but had never seen any member of the Who in any configuration. It turns out that somehow the Who had never played here in Nashville before last night, which partially explains why I haven't seen them during the 24 years that I've lived in Music City.

Roger Daltrey played the Ryman a few years ago. During the bit of onstage banter and baiting between Daltrey and Pete Townshend that followed the Quadrophenia portion of the evening's entertainment, Daltrey referenced that show as the best of his career. Pete tartly replied that it couldn't have been that great "because I fucking wasn't there!"

Both of those gentlemen were very much in the hizzouse that is the cavernous, clangorous Bridgestone Arena last night, and they did their legacy proud. They served up their ambitious 1973 double-LP Quadrophenia in its entirety, followed it with The Only Five Who Songs You Hear on the Radio These Days, and then it concluded with the group's sole survivors, Pete and Roger, alone onstage for a little-known acoustic number.

For me, the drawing card besides getting to see the Who at all was that they were playing all of my favorite album. While I'm very sympathetic to the argument that the group's best period was their 1966-67 The Who Sell Out / A Quick One pinnacle of Who poppiness, for me, their crowning achievement was Quadrophenia. This concept album tried to combine the story of Mods vs. Rockers in the mid-'60s England of the group members' adolescence with a powerful subcurrent about Pete Townshend's own misgivings about his group's rise from the same mean streets as main character Jimmy (in "The Punk and the Godfather," the group even blows off Jimmy when he tries to greet them at the stage door!). And there's stuff about mortality and the ocean and drowning, because it's Pete Townshend, and that's just what he does, dammit.