Scott Miller - A separate peace
He made a mess of this town. But you wouldn't know it from his yard. Scott Miller, a.k.a. "A. Scott Miller," onetime denizen of Knoxville's city neighborhoods and seedy bars, a man who has watched entire months of nights blur into bleary mornings, makes his home these days in a gray ranch house atop a forested hill in a particularly lush and leafy subdivision, with neatly spaced white and red azalea bushes lining the front. "I'm pretty suburban," he says, grimacing a little. "I mean, I had to take out the trash this morning." Not just that, either. As of late March, the 32-year-old Miller -- former leader of the V-roys, he of the pounding heart and whispered lies and late-night sorrows -- is a married man. Happily married. "The first month's been great," he says, and he laughs. And then there's "the record" -- Miller's studio solo debut, Thus Always To Tyrants, released on Sugar Hill in June. It's credited to Scott Miller & the Commonwealth, but the band is a hazy construct; fourteen musicians are listed as "members of the Commonwealth," and only a few of them are touring with him. "I didn't make this record alone," he says, explaining the tag. "I couldn't have done this by myself." His friends say they can't remember seeing him so apparently content -- which is, of course, a relative thing. "He can be a surly son of a bitch, but this is as happy as I've ever known him to be," says Shane Tymon, a close friend and motorcycle buddy who has known Miller during most of his years in Knoxville. Since the 1999 demise of the V-roys, acolytes of that outfit have been awaiting Miller's next move. While fellow V-roy Mic Harrison wrote a share of the band's signature tunes, Miller was always its sardonic soul. Their two discs on Steve Earle's E-Squared label were full of his alternately brooding and blazing takes on heartache, cheating and loss (the exception, "Cold Beer Hello," only sounds happy). "Man, it's been a year and a half getting the son of a bitch made, from concept to getting the publishing deal, everything that I did," Miller says, setting a can of Budweiser down on a tray table so he can prop a single-action BB gun against his right shoulder. He's constructed a small shooting range in his backyard, which drops off into a forested gully. There's another Bud can dangling from a string, already punctured with pellet holes, along with other random targets: a clock radio, an answering machine, a Coke can. Miller is most intent on hitting a squeezable Mickey Mouse doll, which squeaks if you hit it right between the buttons. "I'm pretty happy with how it turned out," he continues. "I can live with it and I can tour behind it. I can sing those songs every night and mean 'em, not fake it." No wonder. Thus Always To Tyrants is a fiercely personal album, with Miller following in his own footsteps all the way. From the opener "Across The Line", in which he says goodbye to his Shenandoah Valley home ("There's nothing wrong with where I come from/Sometimes it's meant to be just that"), through a batch of songs about family and relationships, to the elegiac neo-gospel finale "Is There Room On The Cross For Me", it tracks Miller's bumpy road to his own kind of maturity. A pair of folky Civil War songs in the middle section are drawn from his forebears' direct experiences, and you can hear echoes of those battles throughout. The war is kind of a leitmotif for Miller. He's visited it before, in songs like the V-roys' "Virginia Way" and his solo composition "The Rain" (available on his acoustic live album, Are You With Me?). It combines his passion for history -- Miller has a degree from William & Mary -- with an awareness of his own deep roots. "My father is Pennsylvania Dutch," he says. "Sometimes I felt like we fought that war over and over and over when I was a teenager. A battle of wills. He was the breadwinner who told me what to do, and I was the skinny kid who was mule-stubborn. Much like that war. Two sides who felt they were morally right and bullied and backed themselves into a corner over 80 years until it came to blows. It was stupid. Not glamorous at all. Fought by poor men for rich men. No defense for it. "Most of that war was fought in my backyard. There are still trenches all over Virginia, what builders haven't bulldozed over. How could it not be in my conscious? People died there." He had plenty of time to contemplate the place, growing up on Shenandoah farmland miles away from anything. "It wasn't so much rural as isolated," he says. The youngest son of parents who came out of the Great Depression, he was isolated in other ways, too; you get the sense he's never quite belonged to any generation. The new album's searingly autobiographical "Daddy Raised A Boy" opens with the line, "My old man could be your dad's old man." The first song he remembers responding to was B.J. Thomas' "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head". Not too much later, he got curious about making music himself. "I tried band, but I hated it," he says of his grade-school days. "Then my brother came home from college and he picked up guitar, like a lot of hippies did back then. He could just read those chord charts, little dot things. He had this book, a Reader's Digest compilation songbook. I would just play those things for hours. 'Cause there wasn't much else to do." If his Virginia upbringing figures explicitly in the new album -- its title is the state's motto -- Miller's adopted home is nearly as present by implication. He followed a girlfriend to Knoxville in 1990, fresh out of college and determined to make a career in music. His orientation at the time was folky singer-songwriter stuff with an acid comic bite, and he started a regular solo gig at a University of Tennessee hangout called Hawkeye's. Those sets and the songs that went with them have assumed legendary status in Knoxville, and tapes still circulate of tunes such as "Jacki With An Eye" and "Feminist Nightmare". Local music godfather Todd Steed, whose band Apelife has opened some shows for Miller on his current tour, remembers the first time he heard the new kid in town. "I saw him playing at Hawkeye's," he says. "I thought it sounded like a sick John Prine -- a mentally and spiritually sick John Prine. I thought he'd be good to play with us. After the show, I left a card for him to call me. And he didn't." Steed and Miller eventually shared plenty of stages. They even formed a side-project together, a goof-off called Run, Jump And Throw Like A Girl that included future V-roy Jeff Bills on drums. Miller has mixed feelings about those early years. "It about put me in a nervous breakdown, tell you the truth," he says. "I was busting my ass, playing every chance I got. I didn't drink, didn't smoke, so I had all the energy in the world. I could work a 10-hour day, drive up to Lexington, play a show, come back, be back in time for work that next day and keep going." Around 1994, he connected with another young countryish songwriter named John Paul Keith. With Bills and bass player Paxton Sellers, they formed the first version of the Viceroys (the name eventually got abbreviated when they discovered a reggae band owned the Viceroys copyright). Keith left for Nashville the next year, and Bills' old friend Mic Harrison joined the lineup. Their crackling rock and country lilt caught the ear of the recently rehabilitated Steve Earle, who added them to the roster of E-Squared, the label he'd just launched with Jack Emerson. Earle and his producing partner Ray Kennedy produced the V-roys' 1996 debut Just Add Ice, and also All Around Town two years later. With their trademark black suits and Beatles boots, the V-roys were an unlikely and irresistible mixture of honky-tonk, rock and Merseybeat pop. They would pull off the unlikely feat of convincingly covering Hank Williams and Judas Priest in the same set. But a couple of years on the road and sales in the low thousands had predictable enervating effects. There were also rumors of discord between the band and Earle, about which Miller says, "It was a business and a friendship and a fucked-up family. That label was a family in some ways. I wish him really well. I always have respect for him as a songwriter. And I think he does for me too. He's a complex character." The band's breakup didn't surprise anyone. "There's never a good reason," Miller says, getting up to rearrange his shooting targets. "Man, it was just time. We'd kind of reached our peak. They're good guys." He still hangs out with Harrison, who's now leading his own band, the Faults. They've even spent some hours writing together in an open-air treehouse behind Miller's home. Miller didn't pause for breath once the V-roys were officially history. He immediately secured a publishing deal with the Welk Music Group in Nashville and started organizing regular singer-songwriter nights at clubs in Knoxville. At first, it seemed likely he'd head in the folkier direction indicated by later V-roys songs such as "Mary" and "Virginia Way", which had featured members of bluegrasser Del McCoury's band. There was talk of a Virginia concept album, a song-cycle about the state and the war and Miller's relationship to both. That's not quite how it turned out. Miller had met producer R.S. Field while he was still in the V-roys. Field, best known for his long association with Webb Wilder, approached Miller after a gig and told him he thought "Goodnight Loser" was a classic song. They got to be friends, and over Memorial Day weekend of 2000, they went into the studio with a group of veteran Nashville players to record four songs. What came out -- "Across The Line", "Yes I Won't", "Loving That Girl", and a cover of the Brogues' lost garage classic "Miracle Man" -- was undeniably rock 'n' roll, more Crazy Horse than "Muleskinner Blues". "My main reference point was the Faces, Who's Next, the Glyn Johns sort of school of recording," Field says. "We were going for a full-bodied sound, without trying to just ape yesterday. Obviously Neil Young, obviously [Tom] Petty, and then some of the British stuff too." Miller had some interest from Sugar Hill Records, but he wasn't sure what the mostly acoustic label would think of the material. To his surprise, they liked it. At the same time, he got offers from two larger labels, including Virgin. But he stuck with the smaller company. "I think he made the right decision," Field says. "There was some thought Virgin was going to be sold to MCA. [Sugar Hill] has been really cool. They're kind of moving away from just the super-picker acoustic thing." To flesh out the songs, Miller and Field assembled some super pickers of their own: guitarist Dave Grissom ("one of my favorite guitar players who's not dead," Field says), bass player Mike Brignadello, drummer Greg Morrow. On the folkier songs, Tim O'Brien helps out on fiddle and vocals. And Miller stayed true to his Knoxville school, recruiting members of power-pop combo Superdrag to add muscle to two of the hardest-rocking tracks, "Absolution" and "Goddamn The Sun". Peg Hambright, who was in the original lineup of Knoxville's Judybats, provides piano accompaniment to Miller's plaintive vocals on "Is There Room On The Cross For Me". "It's kind of a summation of where I am to this point," Miller says of the finished product. "It's like I've got something to prove, to E-Squared and to the V-roys and to my folks and to myself, to Knoxville. I just jumped in it as quick and hard as I could, you know? "It's on the rebound," he adds with a laugh. "It's a breakup record." And even if it's not the concept album he once had in mind, it is a narrative of sorts. "I wanted to make an album about leaving Virginia, coming to Tennessee, and going from a boy to a man," he says. "Kind of a look back at a bygone era of regionalism. We're in a global world now; regions don't mean squat anymore. But earlier, they sure determined who you are and how you are." He shrugs. "It makes sense to me. I don't know that I got the whole point across; it's not a Red Headed Stranger where people are gonna be able to follow the story. But conceptually to me it makes sense -- and I'm the one living it." The overall sense is of a newfound and stubbornly won acceptance of responsibility and purpose. "Daddy Raised A Boy", with its refrain, "Daddy raised a boy and not a man," lays bare Miller's struggle to get a handle on growing up. He has clearly given this a lot of thought; he even has a five-point manifesto for it. "What a man is," he says, "is he takes responsibility for what he's responsible for. And what are those things? One, for your family. Two, would be your relationship, your significant other. Three, your community, you gotta give something back. God, or whatever supreme being, you oughta try to figure something out. And the most important thing is yourself. You've gotta be able to live with yourself with dignity and respect." It's worth mentioning that the album is also pretty great all the way through. There are pop hooks, rock rave-ups and campfire melodies galore, showcasing the range of Miller's influences and his effortless absorption and reconfiguration of them. Plus, if you haven't noticed, Miller can flat-out sing; his Appalachian timbre is in the tradition that runs from Bill Monroe through the Everlys to all the British beat bands they inspired, and he can also snarl like a trailer park dog. Even the famously self-critical Miller allows that he's fairly satisfied with the results. Which raises the inevitable questions about how he'll keep himself motivated if, as seems likely, the new record proves what he needs to prove to all and sundry. "I definitely think that's something that's on his mind," his old friend Tymon says with a chuckle. "He's as much as said he's scared to death to be happy. All his songs are based in bad things that have happened in his life. "But he can find a way to be miserable. I don't worry too much about it. It's easy for him." Probably so. Because if Scott Miller ever runs out of other people to prove things to, he's always got himself. Jesse Fox Mayshark is a Californian by birth, a Yankee by upbringing and a Tennessean by accident. He is editor of Metro Pulse in Knoxville, Tennessee.