Featured Artist April 2007: Scott Miller (and the Commonwealth)

I recently discovered a time machine! This fabulous device can take you back to when music used to sound good. It can also take you back to the battlefields of the Civil War, or across Appalachia on an Amtrak train as recently as last year. The time machine has a name–it’s called Scott Miller and the Commonwealth, and Scott is our Artist of the Month for April, 2007!

This Virginia-raised Americana singer-songwriter, who makes Knoxville, TN his home, has a history of being “discovered”. After college, he moved to Tennessee, where his live performances with the V-Roys quickly earned him a contract to make records with Steve Earle on his E-Squared label. After the demise of the V-Roys, rootsy Sugar Hill Records grabbed him quickly. Good idea–because he then got discovered by Jeff Foxworthy for the popular WB “Blue Collar TV” program. He and the Commonwealth were the house band for the show during its entire two year run. And if that’s not enough, his music has been produced by such notables as Jim Dickinson (Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, Big Star) and R. S. Field (Webb Wilder, Sonny Landreth). Whew! As Scott might say during one of his performances, “are you with me”?

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Scott when he came to Sacramento, touring in advance of his live album Reconstruction, coming out on April 10. I found him to have two personas–intellectual historian, and outgoing, fiery live performer. Both were present that evening.

Reconstruction was recorded during a 10° cold snap at the Down Home, in Johnson City, TN. Scott tells me that the Down Home is one of the best live music clubs in the country–but they don’t turn the heat on until showtime. 200 hardy fans came in and helped him heat up that room, and the results are evident on the album.

Scott’s music, a mix of rockers and ballads, seems to hit two themes again and again–personal songs about himself and his friends, often utilizing self-deprecating humor, and respectful songs about his forebears. The songs are almost always personal–he brings his characters to life. Sometimes, he’s the character. Some of the uptempo rockers are I Made a Mess of This Town, Goddamn the Sun (which are the two hardest-rocking songs in the set), It Didn’t Take Too Long, and Jody. Jody has an unlikely companion piece, the ballad Dear Sarah. Jody is a first-person tale of an average guy who joins the military, ends up fighting “over there” while his best friend moves in on his wife, watches his TV, drinks his beer, and plays his guitar. My favorite line is “he’s eating sugar while I’m eating sand!” Dear Sarah comes directly from his great-great-grandfather’s letters home from the Civil War battlefields. Scott told me that most Virginians, with their sense of history, have letters like this somewhere. The tone of the letters was always that of a man who felt very small, who was forced by others to fight in what he termed “the calamity”. Never anything about “Northern aggression”–he just missed his family. Scott really brings the man to life. Both songs give us a sense that war is really terrible, and that it’s regular people like you and me who are forced to fight.

Last year, Scott and the band toured by Amtrak train, and a couple of songs relate to that trip–Amtrak Crescent and Still People are Moving. As he said in his introduction to Amtrak Crescent when I saw him at the Blue Lamp, he refers to a lot of places that people west of the Mississippi just don’t care about. But the Amtrak Crescent is a legendary train route which goes from New Orleans to New York (interestingly, it’s also the subject of R.E.M.’s Driver 8). Unfortunately, he’s right–people in our country really don’t know or care much about history or geography, two of Scott’s strengths. The guy who played the first set that night even referred to Scott as being “from Texas”! I’m sorry to hear that from a fellow Sacramentan. Texas and Tennessee both begin with “T”, but are in fact, different states. If you look at a map, they’re even shaped differently! Incidentally, on Scott’s most recent studio album, Citation, he reconciles that difference with a song about Sam Houston (called Say Ho), who hailed from Tennessee and was pretty much the founding father of Texas.

A humorous ode to big cars, Eight Miles Per Gallon, Stephen King’s favorite drinking song, Drunk All Around This Town (really!), a cover of Neil Young’s Hawks and Doves, and a singalong of Miller’s gospel prayer Is There Room on the Cross? are some of the other standouts. Scott utilizes humorous between-song patter, and even references an obscure comment from Steve Martin’s comedy album Let’s Get Small. He definitely engages his audience.

I recently read a blog post by one of Scott’s fans back in Tennessee, and she was hoping that us folks on the West Coast would “get” Scott and his music. We do get it! He may be “regional”, but his themes are universal. And what does regional mean, anyway? Everybody comes from somewhere. The music and stories are good, and that’s all that counts. Congratulations to Scott Miller for reigning over Twirl Radio as Artist of the Month for April, 2007!

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