Show me somethin’ I can’t sell: A conversation with John R. Miller
Hailing from the rural panhandle of West Virginia, singer-songwriter John R. Miller is one of the most fascinating and captivating artists in recent memory.
With a hardscrabble vocal tone and downhome guitar style, the humbled, yet determined aura of Miller is something to behold — this cosmic, honed human antenna that’s always dialed in to whatever and whoever inspires his next melody.
Miller pays keen attention, whether consciously or subconsciously, to the conversations and sentiments either overheard in a diner, exchanged in a dive bar, or simply the national dialogue in the hearts and on the minds of a country and a people currently at an existential crossroads of sorts.
On his latest release, “Depreciated,” Miller offers a well-oiled batch of rollicking tunes, poignant ballads, and whirlwind instrumentals. At its core, the record is a call for camaraderie and compassion. Cast aside your foolish pride, put down your political swords, and reach out to another in an effort to find common ground, for the clock is ticking on all of us — so, why not embrace the beauty in the flaws, faults, redemption and recognition of one another?
What Miller does is what any perceptive, chiseled songwriter worth their weight in salt does — putting forth songs that speak, honestly and directly, to the human condition, to offer solidarity and sense of calm in an uncertain era we’re all trying to navigate to best of our best abilities.
Smoky Mountain News: What is it about that idea of depreciation? Whether it’s an old truck in the back yard or an old farmhouse, or even the love between two people, it always seems to be one of those themes that percolates underneath really great songwriting.
John R. Miller: Well, I think that’s just sort of the underlying theme of life, you know? We’re all sort of bound by time and the way that it changes things — for better or worse. So, I think that’s natural that we all grab it and move towards that as a theme at one time or another.
SMN: What is it about the landscape of West Virginia that inspires you, those people and places that spark your creativity?
JRM: I don’t know that I’m too sure exactly what it is about it. It feels sort of autonomous in its own way. It doesn’t seem particularly affected by outside forces. It might be a romantic idea of it, and its natural beauty is magnetic in a way. But, I think it can sort of go both ways. There is value in that sort of autonomy, but there’s also value in human growth and everything, too.
I do try to have a pretty disciplined writing practice when I’m at home. I try to do a little bit every day. You show up and you always try to be receptive to ideas and things that you hear. Maybe even listening to other songwriters and other music that might offer some guidance, I do get inspiration from that, as well.
It’s all kind of the ideal scenario, where I’m open and receptive to ideas as they come. And then I take them home and work on them when I can. But, sometimes it just shuts off for a little while. You just got to keep showing up and working at it.
SMN: Just like legendary songwriters Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and John Prine, you also have this certain lens you’re writing through, where you can explain a very sensitive, intricate or symbolic topic with such an embracing tone. What’s you’re takeaway with those names I’ve mentioned and some of the things in their craft that rubbed off on you?
JRM: Well, a lot of what those guys were really masters of is a real economy of language. Being able to say things evocatively without necessarily needing to say much at all. And I thought that was always the cool trick, you know?
I sort of naturally gravitate towards those songwriters, just because of how deeply they threw themselves into their craft. They’re sort of guideposts for how to do that in the modern world, for me anyway. And there’s plenty of masters doing it out there even still.
SMN: When you think about how much noise and distraction there is in the modern world, what do you see as the role of the songwriter in the 21st century?
JRM: I think it’s the same role that any creator or creative person has, which is to kind of be able to be selective and filter out certain things, in order to focus on creating. I guess be careful about what kind of things your brain consumes. As they say — garbage in, garbage out. [Laughs].
Want to go?
Rising singer-songwriter John R. Miller will be opening for Americana/roots sensation Town Mountain at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, at The Orange Peel in Asheville.
The show is ages 18 and up. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 day of show. For more information and/or to purchase tickets, go to theorangepeel.net/events/.