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Just Say Ho

A Tennessee-based Virginia rocker salutes the Big Drunk in song; also: Mary Cutrufello gets back on track

Talk about little accidents of grace -- the first time I heard the new, cryptically titled Scott Miller song "Say Ho," I was on my way to work and had just boarded the light rail at the Hermann Park/Rice station. As the lines "Reading Homer to some Cherokee maidens / and you know how Tennessee is in the fall / If you're not gonna make your dreams epic / why bother to dream anything at all?" billowed from my headphones, it suddenly dawned on me that "Say Ho" was a tribute to our city's namesake warlord/politico/orator. And at that very second, as my train hummed its way past Sam Houston's equestrian statue in front of the Warwick, I could have sworn I saw the Big Drunk wink.

Last week at the Mucky Duck, Miller closed his set with "Say Ho." After the show, and before I took him over to the statue for a drive-by photo op, I grilled Miller about what possessed him, a thirtysomething rock-and-roller and native of rural Virginia long resident in Knoxville, Tennessee, to write a song about the biggest of all of Texas's big men.

"Virginia and Tennessee created you, and I came down here to check on my blood investment," says Miller. "I want to see how you're doing with it."

Like Miller, Sam Houston was born in the Shenandoah Valley and later moved to Tennessee, albeit Maryville and later Nashville, in Houston's case. Miller learned all that and more by researching the song via the purplish prose of Marquis James's 1929 biography The Raven. The book has made a Sam Houston fanboy out of Miller.

"If The Raven is right, then Sam Houston was one hell of a motherfucker, just a badass," he says. "The whole story about the ring that his mother gave him when he left home that had the word 'honor' inside it, how she told him that her door would forever be closed to traitors or cowards, that whole thing. And I don't know how much of that is myth, or how much of it you're supposed to believe. I'm sure he was...well, I won't say he was crooked, but he was determined. And he was a drunk...he was everything. He had every fallible thing you could have, he had everything goin' against him that he coulda had, and he still persevered and he still did everything he had to do."

Miller hoped "Say Ho" would stir up some spirited conversations on his Texas swings. So far, he says, the reaction has been disappointing. (On stage at the Mucky, he joked that nobody in Dallas had understood "Say Ho," so he planned to write a song for them called "Tee La," about their patron saint Tom Landry. He also noted the prevalence of Virginia-themed streets around the Mucky, which is on Norfolk and near Richmond and Portsmouth.)

"I thought that comin' down here and remindin' everybody that he was a Virginian would start a fight, but nobody gives a damn," he says. "And then I thought that maybe it wasn't that nobody knows who he is, it's that they know who he is and they don't care, and that bothers me even more. Do I just need to come down here and reform the education system? Is that the problem?"

And if you think about it, we really should celebrate Sam Houston more.

After all, what American city has a cooler namesake? Sam was a man, folks. He took both an arrow and a bullet in one battle against the Creeks and fought on. He caned the crap out of an Ohio congressman who questioned some of his dealings, right in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. "He did that with one arm!" Miller says. "He had one arm down from a war wound, and he still beat the shit out of people!"

He was a century ahead of his time on the Indian question, knew that the Confederacy was doomed from the outset and risked his reputation and life to say so, and though a slaveholder, he allowed his slaves to earn money on the side and even broke the law by allowing them to learn to read and write. And then there was the little matter of whipping the main body of the Mexican army in 17 minutes and capturing the head of state in the process.

They just don't make 'em like that anymore. Could you imagine Rick Perry, an arrow sticking out of his bloody hip, charging a trenchful of amped-up Creek warriors? (I could maybe see "tough gramma" Carole Keeton Strayhorn doing that, but not Governor Goodhair.) As Miller puts it in severely mathematically challenged fashion, what other American city is named after a person who was "Half mystic and half showman / half poet and half sage / and way too stubborn to ever admit defeat"?

"Say Ho" gave me an idea: I asked Miller if he would consider embarking on a project similar to Sufjan Stevens's grand odyssey. So far, indie rocker Stevens has covered Michigan and Illinois into his stated project of 50 concept albums about all 50 states. Miller could do the American cities version -- an album about the namesakes of all the major metropolises here.

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