It’s the day after his 35th birthday and Scott Miller is suffering the consequences. He spent the night before celebrating with R.B. Morris and a few other friends, drinking at bars downtown. The friends slowly trickled home to comfy beds and sleeping wives but Morris and Miller found themselves still up at dawn, barking poetry at mockingbirds in the Fort.
“R.B. loves to exercise the divine spark within him. I just wish we’d done it with beer instead of this red wine,” Miller says. It’s early evening and his hangover is just now starting to ebb, gently ushered on its way with a couple Miller High Lifes. He’s sitting at Opal's backdoor patio while the rush-hour traffic scurries by on Kingston Pike and the bartender sits inside the dark, empty bar watching the Andy Griffith Show. Not a bad place to catch a quiet afternoon buzz.
A few years after the V-roys split up, Miller finds himself in a comfortable place: happily married, relatively content and doing what he loves for a living in his adopted hometown. In a lot of his music, there’s been a bit of booze mythologizing. But Miller says he doesn’t drink like he used to. “I can’t take the hangovers any more. As a younger man I could bounce up from something like last night and go play another show. Then you hit a certain age and man those son-of-a-bitching hangovers come like a big old… ” But his voice trails off, the clouds still a bit too thick to complete the simile.
It’s been mostly work for Miller these days, as he hustles to get ready for the Tuesday release of his second album for Sugar Hill Records. He needs to rehearse with his band, the Commonwealth, book shows and make hotel and travel arrangements for the tour, and try to get whatever publicity he can—all the grueling realities of the rock ’n’ roll life.
The work began almost a year ago. Miller had been touring so much to support his first album, Thus Always to Tyrants, that he’d found he didn’t have that many songs.
“With records before, I always had enough songs,” Miller says. “I was desperate.
“[Last] summer was strange because it was the first time I ever had to sit down and write like that. OK, man, let’s do it,” he says.
He pulled it off, of course. The result—Upside Downside—is inspired by historical stories, his good friend’s son, his life and a couple of old songs he revisited.
He was able to do it in part because he has no formula or usual method.
“They pop through two or three a month, whether you have time to sit down and write them. That’s the hard part,” he says.
More than a decade ago, Miller followed his high school sweetheart to Knoxville. That relationship soon fell apart but somehow Knoxville got under skin. At the time, he was just a skinny kid with a guitar, but local musicians Todd Steed, Terry Hill and Morris encouraged him to make a go of music. He became known for his solo gigs at the now-defunct Hawkeye’s singing his peculiar, funny, dark lyrics.
Then came the more serious and developed V-roys that Miller fronted, which also included Mic Harrison, Jeff Bills, and Paxton Sellers. The group was the first band signed by Steve Earle’s E-Squared label. Although there were high hopes for the V-roys, national success never came. Instead, they sort of became Knoxville’s version of the Replacements, drunken losers with a whole lot of talent, great songs and soul. After two studio albums and a live one, the band split up at the end of 2000 and Miller struck out on his own.
His first post-V-roys solo album, 2001’s Thus Always to Tyrants, didn’t make him rich, but it did make a critical splash and solidified Miller’s reputation as a great songwriter.
The original idea for the follow-up record was to have an upside and a downside session, one recorded with the Nashville-based Commonwealth, another with Superdrag. But Superdrag was too busy and the Commonwealth sessions were going really well, so the whole thing was recorded with the Commonwealth.
Produced with Commonwealth keyboardist Eric Fritsch, it was the first CD where Miller had full control. He’s pleased with the results.
“Everything on there is the way that I wanted it,” he says. “Whether that’s good or not, whether that will do any good or not, or whether people will give a shit or not, I don’t know.”
It opens on an up note, with a couple of rockers “It Didn’t Take Too Long” and “Raised by the Graves.”
A couple of concert favorites finally make their way onto the album as well, “Amtrak Crescent” (“When life goes wrong this train rolled on”) and “Ciderville Saturday Night.” (Miller also intended to put the local crowd pleaser “Can’t Shake Knoxville” on the record, but it’s a song that demands a Knoxville band for backup, so it will have to wait, he says.)
There’s also a historical war ballad on this album, “Red Ball Express,” this one set in World War II. It’s about the gas trucks that drove around the clock as they tried to keep the Allied Forces supplied on their push toward Berlin. “All we do is keep a-rollin’ on/ Trading bodies for petroleum,” Miller sings. “Heatin’ rations on the manifold/ Even now I’ve never felt that old.”
“They didn’t have enough gas. It was bumper-to-bumper trucks,” he explains. “They’d sleep in there. It was a big traffic jam, hauling gas up there. African-American troops—that’s mainly what they used them for. Because they wouldn’t let them fight.”
Historical ballads have become a regular theme for Miller, and he’s good at evoking a time and place. He says he likes the distance writing about the past gives you. “Maybe it’s sneakier. You can put it in the past and get away with it. It’s also easier because the events are already laid out there for you and the ending is already known. But then the emotions you try to get out of it are timeless, I hope.
“I’ve got to write about the whiskey rebellion, which is just begging for a song," he adds. "That’s a great story too, I just haven’t had time to do it.”
Another rocker, “Pull Your Load,” is a song Miller wrote after his freshman year at William & Mary College and he was back at his family’s Virginia farm. Miller was in his room writing a song when his father growled that he needed to get some real work done. Which merely inspired this tune that goes “Don’t ask your brother to help you/ Your sister who been sold/ She tried to make it easy and she didn’t pull her load/ You don’t get nothing for free, pull your load/ I’ll be damned if you’ll use me.”
Miller has always written a lot of autobiographical songs, especially about the relationship with his father and his sister who died of cancer. But “Pull Your Load” is more affectionate mocking than bitterness, perhaps because it was written so long ago.
“I was desperate. I had pulled it up and worked it for a Down Home show [in Johnson City]. I was like, ‘This song ain’t bad for a 19-year-old,’” Miller says. The song worked well enough live—although he thinks he’s lost a verse—to put it on the record.
How does Miller think songs from his younger days measure up to his current stuff? “Some of those songs are so timely,” he says. “I tried to shock a lot more. And I was a lot dumber.
“Some of the songs I played at Hawkeye’s every night, could I play those now? No. I can’t even identify with that guy anymore. I’ll go, ‘That’s pretty clever, I don’t hear anybody else being that good of a smartass anymore.’ But, I can’t feel that way anymore.”
His relationship with his dad is a lot better than you might surmise from listening to Miller’s music. The younger Miller clearly has a lot of respect for his father, a chemical engineer who chucked it all to be a farmer and a high school physics teacher. He was also a musician, although he didn’t have much respect for his son’s idea of music or his chosen career.
Like most engineers, the elder Miller pushed his son to follow a similar path. “I met multi-variable calculus in college and I knew that was the end of it. You’re taking a parabola on an infinite axis and you’re spinning it and you’re going to be calculating its infinite volume and I don’t fucking understand this stuff.”
But Miller seems to have mostly made peace with his father. He expects to have to return to the family farm in five years or so to take care of his folks, who are now in their early 70s.
His own marriage has been great. He and his wife, who works for an architect's firm, grew up in similar environs, Thea just over the border in West Virginia. They met right after Miller moved here and were good friends, but didn’t start dating until a few years ago.
“We dated about a year or two before we got married. But, I knew right away. I just knew. Here I had just got out of the V-roys, I was footloose and fancy free. I was like, ‘Whoo-hoo.’ But I don’t know that we’re meant to be solitary creatures.
“I think timing is part of everything. It’s just right. It’s been good, it’s been healthy for me. I think I give something back,” he says.
Perhaps the most poignant song on the new record is “Jack Tymon,” which closes the album. Written for Miller’s friends’ son, a 2-month-old (to whom Scott and his wife Thea are godparents), it’s a “Forever Young”-style tune with the lyrics, “If you have the joy of passing something on/ like the laugh of your father or the courage of your mom/ but if that never happens and you end up alone/ may your heart be so pure, it’s one that God wants to know.”
But Miller doesn’t see himself having kids anytime soon. “The world does not need any more skinny Millers running around,” he says. “It has nothing to do with over-population or any other reasons I could give—the world does not need to continue this line.”
When asked what he thinks of his progression as a songwriter, Miller pretty much just shrugs. Which Scott Miller songs does Scott Miller think are great? “I hope I haven’t written it yet,” he answers.
“You just try to write songs. I try to make a living. It beats digging ditches. I don’t know if that makes me a whore or something. I don’t feel like one,” he says. “Everybody’s got to make their way in the world. We’re a consumer society. We’re all going to get old and shit ourselves so we’re going to have to pay somebody to take care of us.
“My favorites are always the ones that come to you that are bigger than you. You’re not even present; that’s better than any beer you’ll ever drink.”