Valorie Miller - Pure Carolina, from whisper to wail

When she first heard the quirky harmonies and jagged rhythms of Joni Mitchell's Blue in a college dorm room, Valorie Miller knew she was hearing something special. She just didn't realize it was the key turning in the door to her future. Years later, pushed into the solo slot opening for renowned North Carolina songwriter Malcolm Holcombe in a loud barroom, she knew the tension was intense. She just didn't realize conquering those stomach knots would soon shape her vocal style into one of relaxed confidence. Relating these and other career mileposts -- the gift guitar that unexpectedly awakened her desire to perform at 21; the emerging artist grant, applied for on a lark, that financed her first recording -- Miller might seem to suggest shadowy fates as responsible for her career. As with almost all serious musicians, it actually comes down to one determined person in search of an elusive personal sound. It also helps to have the tools. Holcombe awarded his validation to her talent with this double-edged sword: "Valorie, I've got some bad news for you. You're a songwriter." "That settled that," chuckles Miller. Her development as an instrumentalist and vocalist would come over time. The talent-rich community of Asheville in North Carolina's Blue Ridge mountains would serve as the incubator for her first solo recordings, Analog and Ghost Tracks. Placing coffeehouse country-blues within an indie-rock frame, these albums offered tantalizing glimpses of Miller refining her craft. Graduate school came in the form of playing small clubs with Holcombe across the southeast. The intensity of their interplay as a duo was unforgettable; Miller's bass was the foundation, with her high harmonies soaring above and Holcombe's rasp and guitar windmilling inexorably down the middle. This was North Carolina mountain blues with a vengeance. (Two self-released live recordings capture some of that magic.) Gathering confidence from the tours and fueled by Holcombe's songwriting encouragement, Miller took her newest songs to Nashville in 2002. The product of those sessions, Sweeter Than Salt, shows she was ready. Her vocals -- pure Carolina, from whisper to wail -- reach that goal of a personal sound, with an assurance and control directly attributable to those grueling nights on the road. A series of "Jack-O'Lantern memories" -- unsentimental observations of childhood and the twisty path beyond -- these songs are the most fully realized of her career to date. The production -- a collaboration between Miller and Holcombe, with the assistance of sound engineer Richard McLauren -- strikes that difficult balance of having full, varied arrangements without cluttering the soundscape. Steel guitar, accordion, fiddle, keyboards, harmonica, and a variety of harmony vocals all are there, but they always to open up the song. The album sports a varied mix in styles. Some familiar elements are present, from the down-home whipcrack of "She's Not My Daughter" to the beautifully heartfelt plea "Loosen Me". But also there's the accordion-laced European echoes of "Horrified Lullaby" (Miller's grimly tasty fairy tale), and Brazilian rhythm and guitar on the lovely "Beggar's Pearl". On a grittier note, the oblique little guitar figure anchoring the howling "Twisted Little Bones" ignites a steamy solo turn by J.J. Jackson (an alumnus of Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams' touring bands). Since the end of her partnership with Holcombe this year, Miller has been writing and planning for a new recording. "I think the next one will be more of-a-piece stylistically," she says. "I've been sharing ideas with Robert Sledge, the bassist for Ben Folds. He has such good ears, I'm sure that's going to help shape the next album. I've also been working on my fingerpicking guitar style, which has already affected these new songs." Any more unexpected discoveries? "I just can't wait to find out," she laughs.