Scott Miller's officially lived in Knoxville since 1990. That's almost half the 40-year-old singer/songwriter's life. For the last 12 years or so, though, he's been on the road nearly as much as he's been at home, first with the V-Roys and, since 2000, as both a solo performer and frontman for his new band, the Commonwealth. It's been a grinding cycle of tour, write, record, tour, necessary for a mid-level artist on an independent label but not exactly conducive to fresh ideas or the creative process.
"In 2007, I toured like a ding-dong," Miller says, recalling his performance at the Bijou Theatre last year. "I remember that I flew in from Portland, Ore., went straight to the show, then flew back to San Francisco and played that next night. That's when I was on the Patty Griffin tour. I did 150-something dates that year."
Things started to change last year. Miller's long association with the Sugar Hill label dissolved when the company shut down its office in Durham, N.C. That forced Miller to think about why he had a long-term contract with a label at all.
"When they shut down the office in Durham, I realized that for an artist at my level, or at any level, it doesn't make sense, unless you're selling millions of records," he says. "I had a seven-record deal, and it was about over anyway. Sugar Hill was the best, integrity-wise. They never told me how to make a record.... But I thought, I can take a demo, make 1,000 copies, that's easy. I can sell it, take the money, and pay for the record as I go. Then I own it and the record's paid for. If I want to distribute it with another label, I can. If I want to keep it on my own label, I can. It makes sense."
So Miller and Doug Lancio—who plays guitar for Patty Griffin and has appeared on records by Todd Snider, Allison Moorer, Robinella, Nanci Griffith, and Steve Earle—got together to kick-start the writing process for Miller's new album. Like he did for Citation, the 2006 album he recorded in Memphis with the legendary producer Jim Dickinson, Miller rented a small apartment in Fort Sanders as a writing space. Lancio recorded short, sparse instrumental tracks to inspire Miller's lyrics.
"Doug would record these—they're not quite loops, but just snippets of drum, bass, and guitar," Miller says. "I'd put them on endless play on my CD player and just sit and pound at the typewriter, writing lyrics. Three pages. It wouldn't have to make sense, as long as it was three pages. When I got two or three of those, I'd see what made sense. When I got three songs done that way, it got my brain moving."
Miller quickly finished a bunch of other songs and recorded an acoustic demo and released it through his website as Appalachian Refugee. The first printing, with a series of hand-designed and -printed covers, sold out in an hour and is bound to become a collector's item. The tracks cover standard Miller territory, from the bittersweet ballads "Feel So Fair to Midland" and "Appalachian Refugee" to the self-referential "Knoxville Viceroy" and "Sin in Indiana," which promises to churn with rockabilly fervor in its fully realized form.
"These are the best songs I've written in a long time," he says. "I don't have my muse chained down, so when I started saying to myself, ‘I have to take this home and play it for my wife—this is good,' it was a new breath."
For the first time in its eight-year history, the line-up of the Commonwealth—drummer Shawn McWilliams, guitarist/keyboardist Jeremy Pennebaker, and new bassist Chris Autry—has finally stopped rotating. But Miller recognizes that he's handing the group a difficult task in recording the full album, which he hopes to have finished by the end of September, based on his demos. "We're making this backwards," he says. "The first thing we're putting down is the vocals and the acoustic tracks and the drums will be the last thing on there. It's completely upside-down.... But the band's tolerated it pretty well."