Scott Miller — Jammin Java
On a brisk mid-November evening, Scott Miller is standing on the small stage in a suit, playing an acoustic guitar. As soon as it’s over, he’ll load everything into a van and return to his 200-acre farm near Staunton, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley, where more than 60 cattle are anxiously awaiting his return.
“I’ve been doing this since the middle of August,” Miller says. “I didn’t leave and stay gone. I’d come home for a few days and check the farm and then head back out. It was really harder going back and forth like that than it would be to just go three weeks and be gone like I used to, but I can’t do that anymore.”
For 90 minutes at Jammin’ Java, a 200-seat club in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, he entertains the audience with songs he’s written over the past two-plus decades. Toward the end, he promises to stand outside and talk to anyone who wants a minute. But before they leave, he asks them to visit the merch table.
“I think it was Hayes Carll who said, ‘I feel like a professional T-shirt koozie salesman’,” Miller says a few days later. “He’s not far from it because nobody really buys CDs, and so you’ve got to sell something and you’re hoping to break even at the door. For me it’s yardsticks and t-shirts, and hats, and caps, and whatever clever thing I can think of.”
Miller, one of the forefathers of alt-country/Americana from his days in the mid to late 1990s group the V-Roys, has long been pragmatic about his place in the ever-evolving music business. For the past decade, he and his wife have tended to Miller’s aging parents — his 92-year-old father died in May — and the farm. Recording and touring, the staple of his 20s and 30s, has become secondary to cows and hay.
“It was always my plan to come back here and farm and, hopefully, come back with a bigger career than what I had,” he says. “But that’s how it goes.”
The Malapert as Writer
Now 53, Miller describes himself as a “Singer-Songwriter/Farmer/Malapert.” The last term, a Middle English phrase defined as “an impudent, saucy person,” informs both his worldview and his songwriting, which balances heartbreak and humor in equal measure. In recent years, he has backed away from a harder electric sound in favor of a more low-key style that still can bite you.
“A well-written song. That’s what I like,” Miller says. “Tell a story, have it go from Point A to Point B, find some emotion in there that you identify with, and then try to get other people to identify with it, which is basically as easy as it sounds, I guess.”
Example #1: “Lo Siento, Spanishburg, W.Va.,” a litany about a dying town invaded by Baby Boomer retirees from the Washington, D.C., suburbs, from 2017’s “Ladies Auxiliary.”
“A writer came from a magazine / and wrote the whole town up for the AARP / called it the ‘number one place to retire’ / so the right folks came and the taxes got higher / with their healthy hair and their perfect spouses / they built big mansions and giant cow palaces / and the efite and elite were walking all around / with their noses up as they looked down / on the people born who could not afford / to live in their own town no more.”
“If you had told me growing up here in Augusta County that people were going to drive from D.C. and come to Staunton for the weekend and eat at the restaurants, I’d be like, “You are fucking crazy,” but they’ve done it,” Miller says. “It really is crazy.”
Example #2: “Epic Love,” which tells the story of a failed romance, also from “Ladies Auxiliary,” which was recorded with an all-female band and producer.
“When it’s so hard on the living / that they envy the dead / you were snakebitten / on the day we were wed / and I walked straight into hell / just to get you myself / I should have never looked back / I still feel bad about that.”
Miller says he has “no idea” where his songs come from, noting — like many writers — that he keeps “a notebook of just lines, not necessarily ideas, but just lines that catch me or I think of, or that I hear and steal or something like that.”
“I’ve got a couple of pages of those and just go through and see where you’re at that day.”
The Music Business
I became acquainted with Miller when the V-Roys briefly backed and were produced by Steve Earle, who made the group his first signing on the now defunct E-Squared Records in 1997. The Knoxville, Tenn.-based “thinking-man’s party band” was known for its raucous live shows and fantastic stew of rock, folk, country, and punk, mixing originals with covers of Doc Watson one minute and The Replacements the next.
After the V-Roys parted ways, Miller went out on his own with a band called the Commonwealth. From 2001 to 2006, the band recorded three albums for Americana stalwart Sugar Hill, which at the time was home to Watson, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien, Robert Earl Keen and Miller contemporaries James McMurtry, Reckless Kelly, and The Gourds, among others.
“Sugar Hill was such an awesome independent label, low overhead and great people,” Miller says. “I’d go down and visit the kids at the record label just to hang out. Not because of any business or anything. It was just a good group of people. But then Welk came in and tried to run it like a major label. If you didn’t sell a bunch right out of the box, then they didn’t do shit.
“I don’t have a lot of business acumen, but it made sense to me. If I’m just going to sell 10,000 records, there’s an audience. Why am I just making 15% off that? Why don’t I just make everything but the cost of goods? Enough of that, so I left there.”
In 2000, between the V-Roys and signing with Sugar Hill, Miller had self-released the live acoustic record “Are You With Me?” so it wasn’t that much of a stretch to form his own label long before others went the DIY route. Since 2008, he has released three albums, two Eps and a V-Roys compilation on F.A.Y. Recordings.
After 21 years in Knoxville, Miller and his wife moved back to the Shenandoah Valley in 2011 to help his parents, both retired teachers, take care of their farm. Soon after Miller’s father, then in his 80s, had a stroke, “so it was a good thing I was here.”
“It was naïve on my part, when I left Tennessee, to think I could continue at the pace I had been going,” he says. “It was hard on my manager at that point and my booking agent to realize, ‘Listen, I can’t tour January, February, and part of March because I’m feeding every day and taking care of the cattle. I can’t tour between May and June because it takes me a month to get my hay up.’ Any other time is fine.”
In the summer of 2019, Miller’s parents moved into an assisted living facility on the opposite side of Augusta County.
“He was like, ‘Man, I can’t put you guys through this, I need to be somewhere’,” Miller says. “They got an apartment there where she was upstairs and then he was downstairs in the skilled care. They were together and then, of course, when the pandemic hit, they wouldn’t let her down there. Me and my brother were doing everything but threatening to kidnap the CEO’s pets to get them to see each other.”
Miller’s parents, married 65 years, could not see each other much in his father’s final days, but the entire family was there at the end.
“It was, as they say, a good death, but I feel sorry for them, man,” Miller says. “They’re of the greatest generation. They did every fucking thing they were supposed to do. None of their kids are in jail. We’re all self-supportive. They paid their taxes, they saved their money, had themselves taken care of. A lot of my friends’ parents didn’t. I’m very lucky there.”
The Next Phase of Life
Now that Miller no longer has to worry about his father — his mother, 87, is “in good shape” — he is hoping to pay more attention to music while still balancing farm life.
“I toured more this fall than I had in a long time, even with the pandemic,” he says. “I did better than a lot of folks, but it was just me. I didn’t take a road manager with me like I normally do, and I didn’t take any extra players or anything. Especially with the pandemic, I didn’t feel right dragging somebody else out on the road.”
Miller is playing three nights (Dec. 9-11) at Down Home in Johnson City, Tenn., and then will be off the road until March. He’s planning to write new material this winter and hopes to get an album’s worth of music, “but I don’t know what good that’ll do me.”
“I don’t know if putting out records anymore is any good. I don’t know that anybody knows,” he says. “I like to have something new when I go play again, just because I don’t want to do an oldies show. I just don’t know what the future holds. I’m not too worried about it because I’ve got a farm and I figure I can always eat.
“The music business and farming have a lot in common. There really isn’t money in either one, and you work to support your lifestyle. As long as you enjoy what you’re doing, then you’ve won as far as I’m concerned.”