In concert, he’s effortlessly charming and devastatingly witty, whether he’s talking about the fact he hates babies or the more historical aspects of World War II.
He’s also entirely authentic, right down to his thick drawl and he has flawless comedic timing.
From his home Knoxville Scott Miller took some time to share his thoughts on an assortment of topics including his new album, history, touring, love of football and reading Tom Cruise’s biography.
He’ll be at SXSW and then playing a handful of shows around Tennessee in support before the album’s launch on April 14th.
On becoming a musician…
“That’s just something that was as natural as anything, you know? Like being three years old and singing Burt Bacharach songs with a canoe paddle.
“But I went to college, I studied Russian and Soviet studies and was recruited by the NSA, I could have been a spy! I got out of college in ‘90 and that’s right when the Berlin Wall fell, so there was no need for Russian Soviet studies majors. So I didn’t have much of an option, I was a history major too and my parents are teachers. I always thought I would probably teach and I spent a few years really struggling with it.
“My parents are old, they’re like depression era, and so their mindset is, if they had a child that went into the music business, it just does not compute for them. Because most parents, what they really want, is not to worry about you. They don’t give a damn whether you’re happy or not, they just don’t want to have to worry about you.
“And so, this is not like a corporate ladder to climb and I think I sort of struggled with it but at this point, man, it’s all I know how to do and I’ve been really lucky that I’ve made it 18, going on 19 years now.”
On his favorite historical eras…
“Well, I grew up in Virginia, so Southern history. That stuff was sorta shoved down your throat anyway, but Russian history, that’s the reason I got into Russian/Soviet studies was one, I read “Crime and Punishment” which I think Dostoevsky is one of the greatest writers ever, you know, he invented psychoanalysis, especially that period you know, Czar-ish Russia, incredible, passionate history, cool stuff. It’s not real sexy though, actually it is, but it has to be delivered right.”
On Appalachian Refugee and the new record…
“I was on Sugar Hill for eight years, which was a great label, I loved it there, but record labels, they don’t make any sense any more, just money-wise. It just doesn’t make sense for you to make all this money and not get to keep any of it when you can reach your fans directly.
“So what I did was, I took the demos and handmade a thousand covers. It took me probably two, three months and I just used anything I could. You think about a thousand covers, it’s a lot.
“Like I was home and my mom was throwing out an old deck of cards, like ‘Oh, there’s only 51 and we don’t have any grandchildren to build houses, little card houses out of them, so I’m gonna throw these away’ and I was like, ‘Hand ‘em over, that’s 51 covers right there.’
“I had a stamp made with the song titles and I got one of those numbered stamps like lawyers use, you know, a sequential number stamp. I bought some old yearbooks from like ‘70s in used bookstores, or you can just find ‘em for free, you know, like giveaways and sorta mixed those up, take those pictures and mix ‘em up with newspaper headlines or anything I could. Not all of them are great, but some of them turned out pretty good.
“It was a lot of work and it took up the dining room table and half the house for three months and drove my wife crazy. And she was like, ‘This is a dumb idea! You’re never gonna get a thousand of these.’
“I knew I could make like 50 in a day, maybe, and I’d get a bunch of them and I’d mail them to the website guy in Denver, Bart Bacon, and he’d put them up in batches at a time and people would just come slamming to the website when we sent out a notice they were there. It got the website busy, I mean, I really didn’t think of it as marketing as much as I was just trying to raise money to make this record but it turned out to be really something cool.
“My wife sent me an email and the heading was ‘Baby, you’re a genius’ and it just said, ‘Hey, I shouldn’t have argued with you about you making these covers, it’s a great idea. Love you. Bye.’ And so I was like, ‘Print!’ and I clipped that out and put it on a cover, too. So somebody’s got that. I mean, anything I could find. It was somewhat fun, gave me something to do for the winter months.”
On making the album and the video…
“Sorry about that, it’s a film of us getting hammered. I tell you, it was fun as hell to make, it’s the funnest video I’ve ever made. Probably not as pro as the rest of them but we had a damn good time.
“Michael Webb is the guy that I worked with and he’s a good boy from, incredible musician, he’s like A-list keyboard player to the stars and he has this studio in back. Like in the video, he’s got a couple of pigs – Jimmy Dean and Pearl, a menagerie of rescued hounds and he’s just quite the character. There’s never a dull moment with him.
“And he’s from Kentucky, I’m from Virginia so on one hand we both bonded because we both come from commonwealths but we would give each other shit all the time too.”
On the difference between his work with the Commonwealth and his solo work…
“Well, obviously, there’s a band, and then there’s not a band, but I’ve always said, ‘I think a good song can be played either way’ if it evokes an emotion or tells a story or does what it’s supposed to do, songs can be done in either fashion. Neil Young does it, and there’s a few artists out there that can do it. And I like to think I can, I can play a solo show or I can play with the band.
“I don’t care, like, if I do festivals, if I’m there solo and they stick me between bands, I’m like ‘It’s alright,’ I mean, you can do it, it can be done. So, I don’t know. I love the players I’ve had, but it’s really all about the song and trying to get that across.”
On how he writes songs…
“They just come to you. I keep notebooks, just if I have a song title or a line. I’ve got a little thing, the thing I recorded the demos on is called a little Marantz player, and it’s not even a two-track, it’s like just a glorified tape player that just burns to CD. Like the thing you have when you were a kid, you push ‘play’ or whatever. I keep melodies, I have them on there.
“And then this last record I wrote really different because I was off the road. Like 2007, I did like 160, 170 dates that year. I got home in December and was like, ‘One, I’m sick of every song I wrote. Two, I’ve got to have some time off the road.’
“So, I took a couple months off, specifically to write. I rented a little room down in Knoxville, down near the campus that I was going to go to diligently every day and in the middle of that, my wife’s parents, we had to move them down here (she’s from West Virginia) but we had to move her folks down here to put her father in hospital here in Knoxville. And that took up about three months, he eventually died in March. But it was that sort of intense, that kind of terminal illness, it just eats up everything.
“But in that time, in like the schedule that we had there, I would get up in the morning, I’d take my mother-in-law down to the hospital. Get her a waffle, set her up in the room beside Charlie and then I’d have a few hours that I’d go to the writing room and just try to write as much as I could.
“So this was the first album that was really more perspiration that inspiration. But hopefully, if you’re a decent enough writer, you’re not supposed to be able to tell the difference. I’ll let the public judge that one.”
On covering songs…
“I think covers are, I love picking covers and I pride myself a little bit, even back to the V-Roy days in that we always tried to be smart about picking our covers. They’re usually songs you wished you’d written. And I always try to think about songs that I wish I could have written.
“The Tom T. Hall song [I Can’t Dance] was because of the melody because he “can’t dance,” I love that part, it’s just so catchy.
“The new cover I’m working with the band now, it’s a Los Lobos song, ‘Good Morning Aztlan,’ it’s off like a 2005 record of theirs. They might be the best American rock ’n’ roll band. I used to say that was Creedence, but I might just change my mind. But that song is incredible! I don’t know, it’s just something that catches me, I feel like I can sing, from my heart. Not like I can physically sing it, cause I’m not a singer, but you get the picture.”
On touring this year…
“Oh yeah, I’m gonna do another tour on the train, you know I did that thing with Amtrak years ago and this is the 30th anniversary of the Amtrak Crescent, the 30th anniversary of the government taking it over, shall we say. National Train Day falls in June, so it sorta works out good for everybody. So that’s like a no-brainer. But the rest of it is the same as I always do – go out and slog it out.
“When you tour, it’s not like your vacation or anything. It’s more like your work. I always say that if I’m gonna spend 5 or six ours on the road in the car, in the bus per day – that’s average – anything else that’s less, that’s gravy. If it’s more, you know, you gotta do it. You can sleep till checkout, get there by soundcheck, get a couple hours of sleep and play the show then repeat. Repeat and rinse.
“There’s not a lot of time, with the way I tour and the level I’m at too, you don’t get to stop and sight see. But I’ve got favorite cities, any city on a river is a friend of mine! Cincinnati, Louisville, I think river towns are really special. Chicago, it’s on a lake, but I love Chicago. I always look forward to different places.”
On the 2007 tour with Patty Griffin…
“I’m probably going to have to give her a percentage of record sales for the rest of my life, that tour really helped me out. She’s a good soul, and she’s funny.”
On things he brings with him on tour…
“Beer. You know, last year I hauled a… well, I live in Knoxville, right? University of Tennessee. Football is pretty big here although we sucked last year but for my birthday I got, they redid the stadium and I got two seats from the old stadium, had them welded in to where they were like a little bench seat and I hauled them all the way to damn-friggin’ Idaho and back. I pulled them out and watched a game, every Saturday.
“I try my best not to tour on game day or like, what time they play, ‘Wait a minute, whoa, whoa, whoa, uh-huh, no, I can’t do that. It’s a 7 o’clock kick off, I’m on the West Coast, I don’t think so.” That kind of crap.
“I love books, especially when you’re traveling through the Midwest and there’s not much to look at. The Unauthorized Biography of Tom Cruise I found very entertaining. I was reading, well there’s this guy, Steve Knopper, my wife heard about on NPR, and he wrote this book about the record industry and how the big labels, they really collapsed and they didn’t handle the switch to CDs properly at all and I was reading that on the plane and it was like, ‘This is too much reality! I don’t want to read about business.’
“So, I was walking through the Dallas airport and for half price they had the Tom Cruise unauthorized biography. I just kept the cover folded back so no one could see what I was reading. I learned a lot about Scientology. You ever do that? I mean, sometime in college you’d be studying and be so intense you just need to go get a trash novel and just read it for an hour or two or something just to give your brain a rest.”
What he’s listening to now…
“Lots of Los Lobos! Of late, I finally found my old copy of Bill Withers Live at the Carnegie Hall, I love that record.
“And you know, I just did this show with John Oates from Hall & Oates, I had such a great time. I didn’t realize he was such a Doc Watson fan. He’s really into folk music, that era, because a lot of that came through Philadelphia where he grew up and so I’ve been busting out a lot if that lately.
“It’s been years since I’ve listened to some of those songs. Doc Watson’s one of those players, like John and I talked about, if you ever saw him live, you can always tell young guitar players because they sorta hang their heads and go, ‘I quit. He’s so good!’”
On his musical guilty pleasures…
“Oh, shit yeah! But I ain’t gonna admit that to you. I love Katy Perry, love that stuff. Yeah, man, there’s some Simon & Garfunkel, you know, I’ll move on over to the damn soft acoustic rock stations every now and again, catch me a little Al Stewart or something.”
“I don’t know, use the word ‘genius’ as many times as you can. To know me is to love me, or not.”
For Crying Out Loud will be available April 14th but you can pre-order it.
Press photo by Kathleen Cotter, live photo by Nichole Wagner