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When he's on stage, Scott Miller's catchphrase is "Are you with me?" The former V-Roys front man uses that question -- which was also the title of his live album -- as much to gauge where he's at as he does to determine the whereabouts of the crowd.
Turns out on his last album -- the sweeping, stunningly good Virginia-based song cycle Thus Always to Tyrants -- the audience didn't always make it all the way there. Sure, they got off on the music, but when he sang about obscure Civil War battles and über-abolitionist John Brown "dancing on the long end of a rope," they weren't always with him.
Upside Downside, Miller's latest effort, is not quite so much a song cycle, though geography does bind the songs loosely. It's a bit of tribute to his second home: the state of Tennessee, or at least a city or two in it. The album was recorded in Nashville, and Memphis gets a nod in the Booker T. and the MGs-style instrumental "Chill, Relax Now," but it was a less famous Volunteer State town that inspired most of the stuff.
"I lean a little more towards Knoxville, but there wasn't that much rhyme or reason to the album," Miller says. "On Tyrants I was focused -- probably too focused, 'cause it was like 'Hey, Virginia! Who's with me? Anybody? Anybody? Anybody back there? Hello?' Musically I guess I was trying to get to my '70s AM-radio roots, which has all been done before, the album side thing's been done before."
What hasn't been done before is anything quite like this mix of music and songs. In addition to the Memphis soul stew of "Chill ," there's also Chuck Berry-style rock, '70s-style raunch-n-roll, Elvis Costello pop-rock, country rock and old-time mountain music. Tyrants producer RS Field's dramatic and occasionally Anglophile input has been replaced by Miller's own more stripped-down values, together with those of co-producer and keyboardist Eric Fritsch. All told, Upside is not as instantly gripping as Tyrants, though after a listen or three its hold proves just as strong.
If there were a state called "Appalachia," Knoxville would be the capital, and Miller has called Tennessee's third-largest city home since moving there after graduating from William & Mary in Virginia in the early '90s. The Shenandoah Valley-bred Miller says he was a pretentious little son of a gun back then.
"Oh, I was so groovy," he remembers. "I talked to an old friend of mine the other day. Back then we tried so hard to be groovy, but we were just redneck punks. So I reminded him of the old days and he was like, 'I don't know what you're talking about. I have no idea what you're referring to.' So I was like, 'Man, we had "Groovy Brothers" painted on the hood of the car!' "
Miller wrote a bunch of songs back then that he will never perform in public again. "I was really obnoxious," he remembers, and gives a private performance of one of the blacklisted tunes. "'You can call me evil / call me mean / the coal doesn't carry a human being / the worst son of a bitch you've ever seen / but at least you won't call me daddy.' And there's still people out there that remember this stuff. You couldn't sing those songs every night and keep your sanity. I don't know how Ray Stevens does it."
One song does appear on Upside Downside that even predates that era: the rowdy rocker "Pull Your Load." Of it Miller writes in the liner notes: "I had just come home from my first year away at school and wrote a song that sounded like a kid who had just had freshman English -- I think it even made reference to Samuel Beckett." ("Sartre and all that shit -- I was all about it, baby! Enlightened!" Miller tells me.) "I then walked out of a room into a speech by my father about how I needed to get some real work done around the farm. I turned around, went back into my room and wrote this."
Which goes a little something like this: "Don't ask your brother to help you / Or your sister who's been sold / She tried to make it easy / And she didn't pull her load."
Miller applies that work ethic to his career, which he sees as not a job but a calling. "I've said this all before, but there's people in the music business that want it really, really bad," he says. "They want it, they really want it. And then there's people that have to do it. They would do it whatever the critics said or if they didn't sell any records or whatever. There's a world of difference. The world doesn't owe you a goddamn living just 'cause you're in a goddamn band!"
Though Miller just turned 35, his father grew up during the depression and fought in World War II and his mother is almost as old. A certain amount of wild-eyed desperation was apparent on Tyrants -- it was probably Miller's last chance to make it as a musician before he succumbed to family pressure to get a grad school degree and the dreaded "real job." Luckily, Tyrants was a critical smash and a small commercial success.
"I probably did have a wild look in my eye on Tyrants -- I was scared," he says. By contrast, Miller sounds more relaxed on Upside. "Now I do feel a little more settled," he says, adding that his marriage has aided in that department. "It's been a long, hard road to get to where I can make a decent living -- which I feel guilty about -- and of course my parents are so old-school. They're from the depression era, and all people like that want for their children is for them to find a job with insurance so they don't have to worry about them. So choosing this path was hard on them and hard on me. When it finally came to fruition, I think I kind of relaxed a little bit. I told y'all I wasn't worthless!"
His fellow musicians were easier to convince. Steve Earle took the V-Roys under his newly mended wings back in the mid-'90s, as did Cheap Trick, with whom he toured as a V-Roy and for whom he continues to open with his new band, the Commonwealth. Miller's Texas swing is interrupting a few summer gigs with the legendary Chicago rockers.
"One of the last decent things the V-Roys did before we disintegrated was tour with them," he says. "We learned more about rock and roll in those ten days Those guys got the songs, man. You just don't realize how many hits they had. I know radio was different back then, but fuckin' A!"
For Miller, it's all about the songs. Literally hundreds of bands are making good music these days, but precious few can be said to pen good tunes.
"Songs are not for everybody. If they were, John Prine would be a billionaire," Miller says. "And there's nothing wrong with that kind of music; it's just not what draws me. Songs have always drawn me. My dad listened to big band and all that shit, which I appreciated whenever it was a good song, and occasionally it was. Cole Porter can write a song."
And Miller is one of the few writers going today that seems as genuinely touched with the gift. Take these lines from Tyrants' "Loving that Girl Is Hard on a Man": "Every winter will spring every summer will fall / She's as cool as they come and as hot as them all." Or these, from Upside's "The Way": "The back porch where we first kissed is where we said so long / I headed out to find what it is that makes a man want to come back home." And this one, from Upside's closer, "Jack Tymon," a song to his godson: "May your heart be so pure it's one that God wants to know."
Yep, we're with you on that one.
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