Scott Miller & The Commonwealth
Virginia's Sic Semper Tyrannis -- Thus Always to Tyrants -- is rivaled only by New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die" and West Virginia's "Mountaineers Are Always Free" (translation: If you don't like what we're doing up here, come and get us) in terms of sheer state snarkiness. Compound its in-your-face nature with the fact that wanna-be Virginian John Wilkes Booth hijacked the motto as his cri de coeur after whacking Honest Abe and leaping from the presidential box to the stage below, and you've got one stubbornly held motto.
Ex V-Roys front man Scott Miller has made a similar leap, albeit merely from a band's confines to a solo setting, and unlike Booth, Miller has most decidedly not crippled himself in the process. His first full-band solo CD heralds Miller's arrival as a great American singer-songwriter.
Miller's keen eye for detail, self- deprecating humor, soul-baring honesty and sheer love of wordplay combine for a still-ripening talent on par with other great regional songwriters. A line like "Winter will spring and summer will fall," from his anthemic "Lovin' That Girl Is Too Hard on a Man" comes only to the truly blessed, and often then only in dreams, as it did with Miller. On the epic "Across the Line," Miller crafts another gem when he sings, "There's nothing wrong with where I come from, but sometimes it's meant to be just that."
A native of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, the 30-year-old Miller brings his commonwealth to life the same way that Springsteen does the Jersey shore and John Prine the Western Kentucky coal and tobacco lands. Miller's Virginia is populated by well-meaning ne'er-do-wells and the ghostly legions of Confederate and Union dead who sleep beneath every Virginian's feet.
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There is also more than enough detail here to suggest that Miller knows a thing or two about raising hell. On "Goddamn the Sun" Miller rages at the light breaking in the eastern sky after a night of heavy drinking, that awful hour familiar to only the most devoted of night owls, when the beer's gone, the stores won't sell any more, and the paper hits the front porch like a judge's gavel. All the world but your own sorry self is off to earn a living, and you realize that tomorrow -- perhaps even the rest of your life -- will be a senseless waste of time.
The senseless waste of lives, also known to every good Virginian as The War Between the States, provides grist for Miller, too. Two songs -- "Highland County Boy" and "Dear Sarah" -- offer a mini-suite of the tragic era that defined The Old Dominion before and ever after. Each can stand with the historical songs of former V-Roys mentor Steve Earle, whose "Ben McCullough" and "Tom Ames' Prayer" Miller's tunes resemble in their powers of resurrection.
Musically, Miller and producer R.S. Field vary from Appalachian string sounds to sweeping Revolver-esque arrangements, complete with wailing guitars and cellos wildly sawed. Miller strips the sound to bare essentials with the closer, a self-penned mountain hymn titled "Is There Room on the Cross for Me?" Miller calls it the world's first "slacker spiritual," but he's being too hard on himself. Just as he is when he sings on that same song, "O Lord hear me cry, I've not earned the right to die."
If he hadn't earned the right when he wrote that line, he has now, for these songs will live forever, at least in this critic's CD collection. But God willing the world will wring 40 or 50 more years of quality meal from Scott Miller.
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