Scott Miller isn’t trying to kid anyone. And he’s not trying to be a kid again either. So when you hear that the former V-Roy rented an apartment in Fort Sanders to write the songs for his latest album, Citation, don’t think it’s because he wanted to recapture that youthful spirit or drink from with the gritty faucets of creativity that seem to come part-and-parcel with the low-rent studios there or any of that romanticized mumbo jumbo.
Nope, he just needed some peace and quiet—away from the alluring distractions of home, such as TV and his wife, but not in that order.
It had been almost three years since he’d done an album, and Miller was getting lazy. But then one day he got a call from a woman at his label, Sugar Hill Records, saying that he might have the chance to work with Jim Dickinson, who’s also worked with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and The Replacements.
Understandably, it lit a fire under him. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Beth, you get that motherfucker to even think about working with me and I’ll be there and I’ll have songs,’” says Miller.
Hence, the apartment in the Fort. For a while there, Miller was just a guy with a typewriter, a guitar and, for the first time in his musical career, a deadline.
Right now, though, he’d give anything for the diversions of home. “I’m down here in Texas,” he says dejectedly, as if that alone explains his foul mood. “I’m doing the South by Southwest festival, unfortunately. I’ve managed to avoid it all these years.” Miller spends a lot of time touring the president’s home state, but that doesn’t mean he’s got to like it.
In fact, Miller’s even got what amounts to an anti-homage to Texas on Citation. The song, called “Say Ho,” recounts the life of the straight-shootin’ Tennessee statesman Sam Houston, who eventually helped build Texas from the ground up, only to be betrayed by the wily state in the end. The song scolds Texas for turning its back on Houston during the Civil War by joining the Union despite his wishes.
Ornery Tennessean that he was, Houston came home, and Miller sees some parallels there to his own life. “I’m from Virginia; we created the whole nation!” Miller says. “I have a hobby of reminding Texans where they came from. If it weren’t for Tennessee and Virginia, they wouldn’t even be around.”
The former Russian-lit major is fond of stories, and on this album, Miller aims to capture what he calls “everyday heroes.” But these figures aren’t grinning Kodak-commercial grandparents or firefighters; they’re imagined, whether he intended it or not, in a ratty Fort Sanders apartment, and are by nature a little weathered, a little flawed. And sometimes they’re a little risqué. The album opens with the sensual “Freedom Is a Stranger,” which boldly contains the line, “I could smell her on my fingers. She said it tasted so swee-ee-eet.”
While Miller, who’s at heart a Southern boy with a drawl to accompany his every quip, might have embedded the song between say, the one about the WWII vet and the bluesy jaunt about a car, Dickinson insisted otherwise. “He said, ‘This is your album opener; if not, I quit,’” says Miller. “I figured there was nothin’ wrong with a little dirty talkin’ before you give them a history lesson.”
Still, Miller had his doubts about the song. “When I wrote that I sat up in my chair and said, ‘Did I just write that? Can I do that?’” Like the protagonist in “Freedom,” though, the song leaves you craving more. And Miller delivers.
The disc is a little glossier than his previous albums, 2001’s Thus Always to Tyrants and 2003’s Upside/Downside. But despite its shiny veneer and the prettyboy mugshots of Miller plastering the liner notes, the disc stays true to what Miller’s always been about—alternately fiery and affecting songs that go down ever so easy with a High Life or two. The songwriting’s candid and, thanks in no small part to his rowdy band the Commonwealth, the instrumentals on Citation are at once hotheaded and clean.
Loyal show-goers will recognize the song, “Only Everything,” which in concert is a soulful but timid number. But Dickinson resurrected and tweaked it a bit for the album. “He talked to The Commonwealth behind my back and asked if there was any song I wasn’t playing,” says Miller. When the boys suggested the track, Dickinson said, “Why don’t you guys go in there and rock it up?”
Miller describes Dickinson as the kind of guy who’s “producing before you know he’s producing, pushing and prodding before you know he’s doing it.” But maybe, in the end, a little prodding is just what our favorite Knoxville boy needed.