Christmas in Knoxville: It's typically a time of leaf blowers, long lines at Honey Baked Ham, and briskly warm ice skating on Market Square. But now it is also a time for the music of Scott Miller.
Boldly treading where few other local musicians have dared, Miller has just released Christmas Gift, an EP of seven straight-up holiday tunes. Backed by local luminaries such as R.B. Morris and Peggy Hambright, Miller puts his heart into songs by John Prine ("Christmas in Prison"), Roger Miller ("Old Toy Trains"), and Neil Young ("Star of Bethlehem")—to whom he had to write a check to clear the rights. Likewise, he offers an original ("Yes, Virginia") that encapsulates his own enthusiasm for Christmas traditions.
Scott Miller, friend of Santa Clause? Believe it.
"I love a holiday when families get together, I love baby Jesus, and I love music. So if there is another holiday with three of those, let me know—I'll do an album for that, too," Miller writes in an e-mail. "I've been doing a show before Christmas at the Down Home in Johnson City for a number of years now, and have always tried to bring a new song for each season. After a while I ended up with some Christmas songs. So why not a Christmas record? Neil Diamond has two!"
Produced and recorded by Todd Steed, the EP is released under the F.A.Y. Recordings banner, Miller's own label. He claims the idea to make a Christmas collection originally came up at a F.A.Y. board meeting.
"We at F.A.Y. Recordings have board members and board meetings, just like BP," Miller insists. "This is the second year our label has been in existence and we've had as many as two board meetings. Our meetings generally take place in bars. Just like BP. It was actually brought up to me, and by the time the second drink came I had agreed. I had to be reminded in June that I had agreed to such a thing so we could get into a studio and have it ready, but it really wasn't a big deal and I wanted to do it."
The songs were lovingly selected by "self-appointed A&R man" Johnny Wright, and the result is a collection of little-heard chestnuts that nevertheless stand up to the classics of the form—these aren't just campy tunes. Miller puts real feeling into each song, and the musicianship is fittingly lovely. Christmas Gift strikes the right balance between holiday cheer and holiday melancholia, though Miller says he didn't consciously come up with that ratio—he was more worried about just having good songs.
"It occurred to me that most people are going to put all their Christmas music in a playlist shuffle, so songs are going to be mixed in with the rest of the classics," he writes. "I was more worried about having this stand up with those, song to song. Plus, a song doesn't have to be fast and fun to be joyful, or sad, in my opinion. ‘Snoopy and the Red Baron' by the Royal Guardsmen is quite melancholy to me."
Christmas Gift can be purchased at Miller's website or the Disc Exchange. And don't forget his upcoming New Year's Eve show with Mic Harrison at the Shed in Maryville. (Regarding that uncomfortable-looking two-headed poster illustration: "That is how we came from the womb. It was only later that surgeons separated us. I still send that team of doctors Christmas cards.")