He holds the record for artist with the most stories written by Bill – 7.
At one point, Scott Miller probably would have tried anything to be a rock star. As the former frontman of the V-Roys stares down 50, however, he’s passed that point.
“You know what,” he begins rhetorically during a recent conversation. “The worst thing that could happen is this record be a hit.”
The record is “Ladies Auxiliary,” and Miller will play with one-third of the women who worked on it, including guitarist and producer Anne McCue, Saturday at the Southgate House Revival.
Some of the tunes will be familiar to his large contingent of Tristate fans (“Lo Siento,” Spanishburg, West Virginia,” “Someday/Sometime”) and some are new since his last effort, “Big Big World” four years ago.
For the record, that album was not a hit. As a matter of fact, Miller’s biggest payday likely came when he sold the song “The People Rule” to PayPal.
“Remember a couple of years ago when I sold that song to them for quite a sum?” he laughs. “I turned that stuff down before, but that deal didn’t take me five seconds of soul searching. It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, well yeah. They’re going to give me how much?’ ”
Make no mistake, Miller would love to have a hit record. But the obligations that come with that would interfere with his main gigs: cattle farmer and caregiver to his parents (dad is 88, mom is 84). Six years ago, he moved from Knoxville, Tennessee, to run the family farm in Virginia. He doesn’t regret it.
“The farming is what does that,” he says when asks how he relieves the stress of multiple chores. “It’s a tremendous amount of work, but if I could get another 50, 100 acres … I could be happy just doin’ that.
“That is my space, when I go out every day, there’s always work to do, but it’s fulfilling. Twice a year, if you’re lucky, you take some calves to market and make some jingle. That’s my thing.”
That’s a good analogy to his music career. Miller has made 10 albums since leaving the V-Roys in the late ’90s. Some have earned some jingle in the marketplace, but his hard currency is more the loyalty and love from people who never fail to come out for his shows.
Life changes, however. And who better to ponder that than a songwriter?
“My mother-in-law died and my dad had a stroke within one week,” Miller says. “The month before, one of my old scout masters died and the youth leader I grew up with at church died. I’m sitting at the funeral thinking what am I doing to give anything back?
“These guys didn’t have more free time than I do, yet they made time and were influential with me, helped raise me. Maybe I could drive a school bus, be the first thing the kids see in the morning, the last thing in the afternoon. And I’m an excellent driver.”
The story is classic Scott Miller: A serious situation, a sober insight, then humor. Leave the listener with hope. The hope here is that he continues to carve out time to visit.
Scott Miller on ‘Ladies Auxiliary’
Question: Did you know Anne McCue before this project?
Miller: We had the same booking agency back in, I don’t know, 2002, 2003. We toured together a bunch. She had a kick-ass band. And I like to think that my band was pretty good at that point, too, and we toured all the time. I knew she could play and was an awesome person. I really brought her on to just play guitar because I was trying to keep it all girls. I grew up with (two) sisters, so that was a natural fit for me. Actually, more comfortable than I’ve ever made.
I remember when I made “Upside Downside” for Sugar Hill, which I produced myself, I said I will never produce myself again. It’s a bad idea, don’t do it. Don’t do it. Then I lulled myself into it. I went, “Oh, I’ve got Bryn (Davies) and Rayna (Gellert), we’ve played together a lot, this should be easy.” Then I got in there and started having to deal with schedules and deal with engineers and the guy who owned the studio. They worked their sound and I’m trying to do what I want.
So, when Anne came up and played, I was like, “Ah, this is fate. How much do I need to pay you to just take this thing and go with it? She brought in the rest of the players and did a great job. Then we went down to her studio in Nashville and finished it. She was a godsend.
Question: Who is traveling with you on this tour?
Miller: Bryn is with me, but Rayna has her own record out, so I got a hot fiddle player, Seth Hopper. I put Anne McCue on one end of the stage and Seth on the other, Bryn and I hold it down in the middle, then I just look over and go, “OK, now you do a solo, then I look the other way and go, “Now you do a solo.” I got the best seat in the house. Bryn and I have it nailed, we got our thing. This is great, I’m really happy with it.
The descriptions that apply to Scott Miller continue to grow.
The singer-songwriter, who returns to the Southgate House for his annual visit to the Tristate Friday night, is the former leader of the beloved V-Roys and the current leader of the Commonwealth, which plays less often that it did. Miller does most of his performing in a duo or trio with bass player Bryn Davies (who joins him here) and fiddler Rayna Gellert (who is currently touring with the reunited Uncle Earl), which he calls the Commonwealth Ladies Auxiliary.
Away from the stage and the studio, Miller lives in his hometown of Staunton, Virginia, where he returned five years ago to help with the family cattle farm and take care of his parents. That’s a full plate, but Miller handles it with the grace of the southern gentleman that he is.
“My dad is 87, he’ll be 88 in September, and my mom is 83,” he says. “Mom’s in great shape; she swims a mile every other day, has all her own teeth and does the crossword puzzle with me.
“Dad, not so well, but he gets by. He is well enough, though, to come out (to the fields) and tell me what I’m doing wrong.”
Miller in conversation is a lot like Miller in song. The observations are keen and usually leavened with humor. He once said that he’s not the greatest musician (“I’ve taken those three chords about as far as they’ll go”), but mixes a shiv-sharp eye for politics (“People Who Rule”), society (“Lo Siento Spanishburg, West Virginia”), religion (“Is There Room on the Cross?”) and fun (“Freedom’s a Stranger”), with lines that sometimes produce out-loud laughs in his lyrics.
The albums don’t arrive as often (“Big Big World” came out in 2013 and he’s working on another now) and he doesn’t play as many shows, but Miller has found a way to merge multiple passions while living a good life among people that he knows and respects.
“The lack of money that I make from not being on the road, hopefully if (beef) prices stay good, the farm makes up for that,” he says. “So, I’m at least generating some income. But I hate it when people talk about ‘gentleman farmers.’ When I think of gentleman farmer, it’s somebody who sits on their (butt) while somebody else does all of the work.”
Anyone who has spent years crisscrossing the country in a struggling band’s van isn’t a person afraid to put in work. It’s tough road to hoe when you don’t know if you’ll ever graduate to giant buses with a driver or better yet, private jets.
Neither of those things happened in Miller’s career, and he’s too smart — and curious about the world beyond music — to keep chasing the card that would fill the flush.
“I used to love it (touring), but hell, I’m 48 now and I can’t do that stuff anymore,” he laughs. “I’ll tell you what I’m looking forward to is when I get old and gray and can sit down and play.”
Spoken like a true gentleman.
Scott Miller has performed in Greater Cincinnati in many configurations: with the V-Roys, as the leader of the Commonwealth and as a solo act.
He will try something new Friday when he plays Molly Malone’s in Covington with Rayna Gellert, a fiddle and viola player who also adds harmony vocals.
“I’ve only met a few players like this in all my time,” Miller says. “She can feel her way through anything, then she’ll play it and … it seems like she’s known it the whole time.
“I met her when I was doing the West Virginia Mountain Stage and she was playing with Abigail Washburn. She was like ‘Hey, I’ve heard of you. My husband’s a big fan.’ ”
If the five songs on the pair’s EP, “CoDependents,” is any indication, Gellert’s husband will have plenty of company. Miller is a thoroughly entertaining performer, but is the first to admit that he has “… never been a musician, you know. I’ve taken three chords as far as I can.”
Miller has built a solid career on those three chords and a gift for lively lyrics, but Gellert lifts the songs more than a notch above standard acoustic guitar tunes.
“Her take on some of the older songs really makes them fun for me to play again,” Miller says. “She is really a great musician, which I am not, so it’s pretty awesome.”
Miller sounds reenergized by that collaboration, and the new record he’s recording with guitar ace Doug Lancio (John Hiatt, Patty Griffin) in Nashville.
“(Lancio’s) writing more of the music and I’m just coming in and writing lyrics. It will be totally different than anything I’ve ever done and everyone will hate it,” Miller laughs.
“He creates a lot of it with just guitars and drums … and I’ll go in and write to it. Something will hit me right away or I’ll take in a couple of half-ass songs that I’ve been pushin’ together and make something to it. But it’s no rules; I don’t have to write a Scott Miller song or tell a story or anything. I’ve been really diggin’ it.”
Miller will return to Nashville to finish the album after this run of shows. After that, it’s likely he will return to the road in one carnation or another.
“People always ask ‘Is it hard to be on the road?’ And I’ll say it’s really not; the hardest part is coming off and going back on. Once you get 48 hours underneath you, you don’t worry about what’s in your mailbox. There is a natural groove to everything, you find it.”
And it’s easier to find that groove with help from friends, whether on the road or in the studio.
There is nothing good about the Southgate House Shutdown. The shock and dismay over Saturday’s closing still rankles music fans, not just here, but across the country.
However, one bright spot emerged: The V-Roys, the Tennessee quartet that played its unique mix of alt-country and garage rock many times during its mid to late 1990s’ lifetime, will reunite Tuesday night to say goodbye to the Newport club.
Drummer Jeff Bills recently recalled the first time he walked into the building.
“I was looking around at the bar and thinking, ‘Well, will we set up next to the pool table (in the Parlour) or where exactly?’
“(Promoter) John (Madden) laughed, and then we walked into the Ballroom and it was awesome.”
The band, which had scheduled a one night only reunion on New Year’s Eve in its home base of Knoxville, Tenn., to celebrate “Sooner or Later,” a career compilation that was released in the fall, wanted to pay its respects to what the members have called “… a very special place for the V-Roys, a home away from home in many respects …”
Guitarist Scott Miller, who continued to play Southgate solo and with his band the Commonwealth after the V-Roys broke up, said the show is also a tribute to Madden and his wife, Brenda, of JBM Promotions.
“After they announced it was going to close, John was talking to our agent and said he knew it was a longshot, but did we want to do this,” says Miller, who had agreed with his mates that the Knoxville gig was a one-time only affair and didn’t want to raise the hopes of fans about a more permanent reunion.
“So, we spent the better part of a day sending emails back and forth and decided to do it. John and Brenda were a big part of this (Southgate history). They worked hard to make us popular in the area.”
Bills, Miller and Madden remember a two-week stretch of harsh winter weather one year when the band was booked into the area twice. Well, they all seem to recall the details differently, but eventually wind up at the same place.
Miller: “We were booked into Cincinnati at Bogart’s, I think, and only a handful of people came out.”
Bills: “Actually Scott, as I remember it, the weather was so bad that after we set up, the manager came out and said the weather was so bad that nobody was going to come, so we packed up and left.”
Madden: “I’m pretty sure it was Ripley’s (the old club on Calhoun Street in University Heights) because I couldn’t believe they were booked here twice in two weeks.”
Time has a way of tangling the tales. However, the story has a happy ending.
“When we came back through Newport … there were about 300 people at the Southgate House to see us, which really surprised us,” Bills says.
Madden said the crowd was a bit smaller, but enthusiastic nonetheless.
Miller didn’t count the door that night, but will always appreciate the meticulous Brenda Madden.
This from a statement promoting Tuesday’s show: “They are the only promoters to send us money later after they recounted the night of the show.”
Miller adds, “That has never happened again, that is the only time.”
So many memories, and only one night to add another. Bills and Miller promise to put aside their sadness to team with guitarist Mic Harrison and bass player Paxton Sellers to send the Southgate out in style.
“It might be a little slower and a little grayer, but it will be fun,” Miller says.
There are no guarantees when you revisit the past. Whether it’s a high school reunion or a project with your old bandmates, the risk-reward ratio is great.
Scott Miller, the former frontman of the fondly remembered V-Roys, got lucky on both counts. While working on “Sooner or Later,” a compilation of the Knoxville, Tenn., group’s tunes with guitarist Mic Harrison, drummer Jeff Bills and bass player Paxton Sellers, it was the good times that stood out. So much so they decided to reunite for one show, a New Year’s Eve extravaganza that sold out so quickly it was moved to a bigger venue in Knoxville.
“We knew we were going to do the CD, but the show was sort of an afterthought,” said Miller, who is playing solo shows in Dayton Thursday and Louisville Friday. “And Jeff went ‘Oh I don’t know, we have to really rehearse,’ and of course we would, but the we said let’s just get in there and see if we can even do it.
“The we got in there and I don’t know if it was motor memory or what, but it was like, wham, bam! … Jeff would hit the opening lick to something and it was like we were right there, and I thought this is awesome.”
Awesome was also used to describe the band’s shows during their five-year lifespan that ended in 1999 with the live “Are We Through Yet?” Regular visitors to Newport’s Southgate House (a tradition Miller keeps alive solo and with his Commonwealth), the V-Roys were labeled an alt-country act. But when they took the stage in their suits and ties, the music quickly turned into pulse pounding rock ’n’ roll that routinely had the crowd on its feet immediately and the boys out of their jackets after about the third song.
What sometimes was lost in the spirit of the night, however, was the strength of the songs themselves. Since the band only released two studio albums — “Just Add Ice” and “All About Town” — true fans are intimately familiar with tunes such as “Guess I Know I’m Right,” “Lie I Believe” “Amy 88” and the new album’s title cut.
The compilation could find an audience of people who know Miller’s and Harrison’s solo work, or music fans who will learn that Steve Earle had a hand in producing the records. However they come to it, though, they will leave hoping that the boys will reconsider their one night only performance.
“Like Steve Martin: ‘One Show Goodbye.’ Yeah, I’d get in the van again with those guys,” Miller laughed, implying the possibility is likely infinitesimal.
Sometimes visiting the past is just for fun, and sometimes there is more involved. Miller and his wife, Thea, moved to his hometown of Staunton, Va., last summer to help care for his dad, who is still working the family farm.
“I always talked about coming back, and I would come back a couple of times a year whether it was to get the cattle in or to market, or (get) the hay up, stuff he can’t do by himself anymore,” Miller said.
Back in the Shenandoah Valley after 20 years in Knoxville, Miller is ready to begin a new chapter. But first, there was one more peek into the past.
“I moved back the same year as my 25th high school reunion,” he said. “Let me tell you, that’s more bizarre than living somewhere else.”
Sounds like great fodder for a new set of songs.
Scott Miller travels the country playing music for a living — a glamorous life — but in many ways he’s just like the folks who stand in front of the stage and call out requests throughout his shows.
Miller, who makes his second stop of the year at the Southgate House Friday night, understands scuffling to make a buck, the joy of getting together with a buddy to listen to records (yes, vinyl albums), and rooting for the local college football team. Somehow, it’s hard to imagine that, say, Elton John spends his time that way.
“We’re releasing a single from the new album,” Miller says from his Knoxville, Tenn., home. “So, I’m sitting around stuffing 200 envelopes and sending them to the AAA (adult album alternative) stations around the country, with a large screen plasma TV or a free live pony,” he laughs.
That’s a shocking thought: payola is alive and well in the new millennium?
“I don’t think it ever went away,” Miller says. “If I do get that break (have a radio hit), I’ll get some money. I’ve always thought that if your song is good enough, it will get played, but …”
But, indeed. Miller probably doesn’t have enough extra cash to provide many live ponies, so his livelihood will have to depend upon the quality of his songs. The single, “Wildcat Whistle,” doesn’t stray far from the Miller template: catchy intro that leads into up-tempo verses with a rockin’ chorus guaranteed to get people on their feet and moving when played live.
“I’ve always looked at touring as advertising,” he says. “If people like the songs, they’ll buy the album (“For Crying Out Loud” spent a month at No. 5 on the Americana charts this summer).”
A hit album is the goal for any musician, but it takes more (or sometimes less, actually) for a record to make it onto the playlist for a night of listening at Miller’s house.
“My buddy Shane is coming over and we’re going to plop down and listen to vinyl,” Miller says. What’s on the menu?
“Los Lobos: I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re the best American rock ‘n’ roll band.
Their body of work stands the test of time.”
Fair enough, but the next ones are shockingly surprising.
“And the BeeGees, ‘Nights on Broadway,’ and probably something from Eddie Rabbitt.”
Really? Miller launched into an explanation, but the words kind of floated in the ether before they could be written. Pondering the image of a hard-core Southern troubadour cueing up the British disco kings was a bit disconcerting. And that was before beginning to process Eddie Rabbitt.
But that’s the beauty of Album Night in America. Hanging out with your pals and groovin’ to tunes that mean something personally is becoming a lost pleasure in these multi-tasking times.
That likely explains Miller’s affection for his hometown Volunteers as well. When life is complicated, simple pleasures are appealing.
“I met John Oates (of Hall & Oates) when Patty Griffin and I did this residency at his school in Colorado,” Miller says, taking the roundabout route to his football story. “He was an incredibly cool man, but when I found out that he loved college football, I freaked out.
“I told him that he had to come to (University of Tennessee’s) Neyland Stadium with more than 100,000 people in orange screaming.”
That’s the tale of Scott Miller — singer-songwriter, music businessman, fan of folks as disparate as the brothers Gibb, Rabbitt, Oates and Lane Kiffin, the wacky (trust me) UT football coach.
It’s a good life, if not as glamorous as, say, Elton’s.
Scott Miller is a thoughtful man, a graduate of the College of William & Mary in his native Virginia. He understands that times are tough in America these days, but is optimistic that he and his band the Commonwealth will survive the rocky economy.
“I think I’m recession proof,” says Miller, who returns to the Southgate House Friday for his annual visit. “People are always going to buy music and they’re always going to drink beer.”
The first part of the statement is not quite as solid as the second half. People are certainly always going to listen to music; the question of if they are willing to pay for it is what has musicians like Miller searching for a new business model.
As for always drinking beer, that debate ended a long time ago.
To paraphrase singer James McMurtry, Miller has been “a beer salesman” in clubs for the past two decades. After college, he moved to Knoxville, Tenn., where he formed and fronted the Viceroys, which morphed into the V-Roys, a successful alt-country quartet. The band earned a loyal following at the Southgate House, and the locals stuck with Miller when the V-Roys disbanded and he returned with the Commonwealth.
“You guys are lucky to have that place,” Miller says of the venerable Newport venue. “You couldn’t keep me from the Southgate House.”
As the business changes, Miller needs places like the Southgate House as much or more than local fans need him to ask his trademark “Are you still with me?” from the stage. One former partner isn’t: Sugar Hill, the record label that distributed the band’s first four albums.
“The business has changed,” Miller says, repeating a familiar refrain of musicians who have had success, but don’t meet rock star criteria. “When I left Sugar Hill, I looked at a spreadsheet and saw how much money I was generating for them, so I decided I might as well try to keep it.”
To that end, Miller produced “Appalachian Refugee,” a collection of demos with hand-designed covers. He made 1,000 copies and sold them online and at shows to raise money to pay for the recording of “For Crying Out Loud,” which comes out in March.
If this sounds more like business than music, well, welcome to the new economic reality.
“It’s always a balance of art vs. commerce,” he says. “What are you willing to do? I think people are willing to work a little harder to have more control over their lives.”
The lesson applies to people other than musicians. For those who are still with him after all these years, he’s still here for you.