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.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the author of these songs has been undergoing a similar struggle. Over the last two years, Miller has passed the age 30 milestone, endured the breakup of his band, fought to get a new solo record deal, and as of this past April, became a husband. "When I wrote this album, I’d turned 30… and I kept thinking ‘Am I a boy, am I a man, what am I doin’ with my life?’ The V-Roys have crashed and I’ve come this far, what in the world is up? Well, maybe when you get older, you should start being a man… well, a girl, a woman, whatever, an adult… but you take responsibility."

Having come to this conclusion, Miller asked himself "Well, what do I have responsibility to?" "I was reading these Ernest Gaines novels at that time, and he had a lot of boy/man themes in the books, and it’s kinda what I took from them. You got responsibility to your family, you’ve got responsibility to your community, you’ve gotta give something back… I think you’ve got a responsibility to figure out your relationship wiuth the cosmos, be that God or be that whatever, you probably ought to owe some thought time towards that. Your significant other, your relationship, you’ve gotta put in effort and take care of that. And then yourself, man, you’ve gotta be able to live with yourself or you’re not gonna do anybody any good. So I just tried to change and just tried to make my life better in a step like that, the same way West Virginia left Virginia."

This would seem to make "Across the Line," the album’s opener, set in the Virginia/West Virginia border town of Pocahontas ("where the main street’s the state line") the pivotal song of Thus Always for Tyrants. "That’s why it’s first… and why it’s got the most production, Jesus Christ! We threw the damn book at it. I wanted that one just bigger than big, epic." The strings and vocal effects add drama to an already intense track, in which the singer is trying to escape the debris of his past and "be brand new again" if he can survive the journey through "swollen gorges" and "sheets of flame" to his new home.

Says Miller, "Look at how West Virginia just stepped away and said ‘look, we’re not playin’, we’re takin’ our ball and goin’ home.’ And boom, here’s a line, and now you’ve stepped across it and you’re different. In a way, I kinda feel like I was tryin’ to do that in my own life. I had just turned 30, and you know, God, I’m 30, am I a man, or a boy? I gotta change, I gotta get my shit straight. So I just kinda made a decision to start tryin’ to live my life a lot better. That kind of sense is what I was going for," both with the song and the album as a whole."

Can physical relocation – whether it be the protagonist of "Across the Line" changing states, or Miller’s own journey from the Shenandoah Valley to the western Appalachians – provide the needed impetus to confront your problems? "Any kind of shakeup in your life. It’s hard to change. What’s familiar sometimes, like the V-Roys… we were on tour, we could do our jobs and everything, we weren’t exactly in a creative spurt or anything. I think it was time to move on, shake something up. My family’s still there [in the Shenandoah], so that’s gonna draw you back… sometimes what’s familiar, even when it’s bad, is better than what’s not."

"Absolution," a searing rocker that embraces drinking to oblivion with a vengeance, seems to be about the complete avoidance of responsibility. "I loves to drink, sir. It’s my church sometimes. We were just looking for that place where you can not care about anything, it just gets too much. And I still have those days."

"Absolution" and "Goddamn the Sun" – the latter clocking in at a Ramones-like sub-two-minute mark – are overpowering, searing rockers, propelled by John Davis and Don Coffey of fellow Knoxville rockers Superdrag. Recounts Miller, "I knew they would rip those songs. ‘Absolution,’ we wrestled with that thing. I kinda knew what I wanted, but we just couldn’t get it. Then we thought well, maybe we could break it down and then try to build it up acoustically, and all this kinda stuff. All those hours we were working on it, and then Don Coffey said ‘Fuck it, let’s just play it! Put those electric guitars back on and let’s just play it!’ And that was it!"

Elsewhere, Thus Always To Tyrants employs a more subtle, folksier approach, particularly on "Dear Sarah" and "Highland County Boy," songs based on the letters of Miller’s great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran. "In Virginia, history just comes up out of the ground. Some of it’s a dead history, but some of it I think is still vibrant and living, in churches and battlefields and stuff." Again, the search for identity comes up – perhaps Miller, in his Oedipal struggle with his father (see "Daddy Raised a Boy"), turned his attention to a male figure from his family’s past who seemed to face up to the responsibility thrust upon him? "I’m related to him, and he looked like me… I’m not a very big fellow and he wasn’t a very big fellow either, but look what he accomplished and did."

Handling the production chores for Thus Always to Tyrants was R.S. Field, best known as the producer, cowriter, and all-around co-conspirator of Nashville roots-rock legend Webb Wilder. Miller has nothing but kind words for Field. "He’s a genius, is what he is. He’s a Mississippi man, has his Mississippi ways… I don’t know why people don’t just go and beg him to do produce their records. He’s very creative and imaginative, and very sensitive to his artist’s needs too. It was a completely different experience, and I really loved it, and he’s responsible for so much of this record that’s good."

The "completely different experience" is in contrast to Miller’s previous foray into the studio, with the Steve Earle/Ray Kennedy team on the V-Roys’ All About Town. While largely capturing the group’s live sound on the V-Roys’ 1996 debut, Just Add Ice, the E-Squared boys gave 1998’s All About Town a production-heavy sheen and added several instrumentalists from the Del McCoury Band, reflecting Earle’s infatuation at the time with McCoury’s bluegrass outfit. Miller still bristles when the subject of his former label and boss comes up: "I definitely felt like I had something to prove, whether to the ex-V-Roys, or to E-Squared. Is that good motivation? I don’t know. Does it matter? Here’s what I got, this is the way I do, this is what I want it to sound like. R.S. helped me understand how to get it."

He may have something to prove to his ex-bandmates, but he bears them no animosity. The other three V-Roys were involved in the Faults, the band led by the other singer and songwriter in the V-Roys, Mic Harrison. Harrison is frequently in the audience at Miller’s shows, and even joins Miller onstage sometimes. Says Miller of Harrison, "There’s no problem there. He’s just a good son of a bitch, I love him so much. He’s a great songwriter, and he really can twist an idea or phrase, and his perspective on stuff is so good sometimes. He’s got a great heart."

Thus Always To Tyrants isn’t the only Scott Miller album of 2001. Earlier in the year, he self-released Are You With Me?, a live CD drawn from a December 2000 solo/acoustic performance in Johnson City, Tennessee. "I pissed off the record label," chuckles Miller. "It was taking so long to get the deal with Sugar Hill done. We were already making the record, and I was broke, you know, so it was a warning shot across the bow. I just took some new songs, a couple of V-Roys songs, and two songs that would be on this record, and just recorded a bunch of those live shows and put it out and sold it so I could eat. They were not happy about it, but I never really pushed it or promoted it or anything, I just used it for what I could."

Are You With Me? includes a good number of Miller originals that don’t appear anywhere else, including the riveting opener of his solo shows ("Can You Hear Me Tonight?"), perhaps his best Civil War song ("The Rain"), a train song that resonates with the same themes as much of Thus Always To Tyrants ("Amtrak Crescent"), and a rave-up written for the movie You Can Count on Me ("Bastard’s Only Son," which was ultimately rejected, though three V-Roys songs made the cut). Miller doesn’t think he’ll revisit any of these songs for studio versions with the possible exception of "Amtrak Crescent." "I’m not done with it. I’d like to try to work up a band version of that and record it again. I got a few more lyrics to tweak on that song."

One regular song from Miller’s solo shows is absent from both Thus Always To Tyrants amd Are You With Me?: "Ciderville Saturday Night," a rockabilly rave-up about David’s Music Barn, a landmark country venue north of Knoxville. When asked about it, Miller was convinced he had included it on Are You With Me? When shown otherwise, he offered "I shoulda put it on there [the live record]… it really didn’t fit with my Virginia stuff, since it’s about East Tennessee. Depended on which direction I wanted to take, leaving Virginia or moving to Tennessee…" He promises it’ll see the light of day in the future.

Appearing on both albums is another key player in Knoxville’s rock history, Peg Hambright. The ex-Judybat contributes piano on Tyrants’ closer, the plaintive gospel of "Room on the Cross," and provides exquisite fiddle and backing vocals on Miller’s live cover of "I’ll Go To My Grave," a song originated by Miller’s fellow Staunton natives the Statler Brothers. Miller waxes enthusiastic over working with Hambright. "One of my best friends in the world is her husband, and she and I just kinda ran in the same circles. She is one of those people who just makes you sick, she’s so talented. They’re a musical family, her father builds and tunes pianos and stuff, and every one of those kids can sing and play anything, pick up an instrument and have it mastered. She bakes cakes, quit the Judybats cause she didn’t like bein’ on the road. So whenever I go and hang out at her house when I’m drunk, they’ve got this old church hymnal, and I always pull it out and make her play. Like ‘Holy Holy Holy,’ which is my favorite hymn, takes me back I guess. So that’s why I got her to play piano on ‘Room on the Cross.’"

During the course of our conversation, Miller discusses literature, offers to point me toward a book sale he’s visited earlier in the day in Nashville that features Civil War books, and reveals an affection for the Pixies and Robyn Hitchcock, two influences one seldom hears in Miller’s own music. With one foot in country and gospel, another planted in rock, and his brain engaged with Ernest Gaines and T.S. Eliot ("Amtrak Crescent" contains a line that makes simultaneous reference to "Prufrock" and the Allman Brothers!), I ask Miller if he ever struggles to fit it all together. "If anything, it’s harder to keep from going back and back and back, especially as a Virginian. You know that joke about how many Virginians it takes to change a light bulb? Five – one to change it and four to talk about how good the old one was. It’s harder for me to try to keep moving forward. I could go back there and wallow in that stuff and just wallow in it – history, my family, the glory days of Virginia when we ruled."

Thus Always To Tyrants is a Virginia record through and through. The title is Virginia’s state motto, the cover image is the Great Seal of Virginia, and its subject matter and sounds drawn straight from the hills. To Miller, place and person are inseparably intertwined. "When I cut this record, I thought, ‘here I’m making this record about a region, in a global world’ and it may be pretty stupid [to do that.] But I think so much of where you’re from, is that the land around you is gonna affect how you are. How you think, how you approach things… part of that is environment, whether you had hills around you when you grew up or not. When you live in the same place that your great grandparents did, and you see the same moon and you live around the same hills that they did. And it affects you."

No comments: