Walking across the worn floorboards of the Down Home in Johnson City, the familiar creaks and cracks echo through East Tennessee’s finest listening room, almost as a reminder that you’ve entered into some hallowed space revered by musicians and audiences alike.
On a chilly evening, Knoxville’s renowned Scott Miller plays to a jam-packed house of family and friends in what he feels is one of the most honest rooms in America. Miller, who has been playing the Down Home for years either solo, with his band The Commonwealth, or with his previous band, The Vroys, recognizes the history of the Down Home is just as interesting as the musicians who have graced its unpretentious stage.
“The crowd is right there at your feet,” says Miller. “And the sound is impeccable. They can hear everything. Everything. The crowd is extremely knowledgeable and will not tolerate any bull.”
On this particular night, the audience will have the first opportunity to purchase Miller’s newest album, For Crying Out Loud. After opening the set with the semi-biographical “Virginia Way,” the room answers his familiar charge: “Are you with me?” with resounding applause.
Many know the plight Miller has overcome to get to this moment. With roots like those of a sturdy oak tree, Americana singer/songwriter Scott Miller has laid claim to several states including Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, but he’s made Tennessee home for nearly 20 years. Clearly, Knoxville has made an impact on his adult life.
“It sounds hokey,” he says, “but when I moved to Knoxville, even at the age of 21, I was overwhelmed by the city life. I immediately ran two stop lights on Henley Street, and for the next month I kept getting pulled over by the cops because I didn’t think to turn my headlights on. [Those] streetlights were bright! It was not the big city life of buildings over two stories and mass transit that shaped me. It was the people and how insanely practical East Tennesseans are.”
As Miller settled into adulthood, the number and quality of albums he’s played on continues to grow along with him. For Crying Out Loud, released on his own label F.A.Y. Records, is a down-to-earth blend of well-worn rockers, acoustic ballads, and cleverly crafted songs. Miller’s gift for songwriting comes from an extraordinary intellect and a gritty, melodious voice. An exceptionally beautiful collaboration with Patty Griffin on “I’m Right Here, My Love” becomes an instant classic, coupled with the lead-off track, “Cheap Ain’t Cheap.”
The album flows along like the New River, intermixed with rapids and eddies from start to finish but concluding with a powerfully mysterious, yet perfectly placed closer, “Feel So Fair to Midland/Double Indemnity.”
At times a self-professed folk singer or an all-out rocker touring with his talented band, Scott Miller isn’t one to be pigeonholed. His music resonates with young and old, forming a mutual bond for those who welcome a good story. Family and history are two themes associated with his songwriting; it’s obvious he appreciates history, but he loves his family. And this comes through in most of his songs—whether it’s an exercise in writing from different perspectives, tales on devotion and loss, or his admiration for historical events and characters.
“History comes natural to me,” he says, “because if you’ve grown up in Virginia you have that stuff forced down your throat. And it helps that the history of Virginia is quite in fact the beginning of this country, way before big, belt-buckled Puritans were shunning Hester Pryne, if she was real, but you get my point. It’s the story of people that is intriguing to me. The serf. The soldier. The mill operator. Those are the pieces that make up the whole. That’s where the real living and dying is. That’s the history I like.”
In most instances the story surpasses the storyteller’s own life, but in Miller’s case, some of his songs document the life he’s led and the life he’s wanted to lead.
In today’s economy, the music business has had its fair share of setbacks, so starting your own record label seems like a big risk. In 2007, Miller found himself immersed in a heavy touring schedule and saddled with some hefty bills.
“It seemed like everyone made money off that year but me,” Miller says. “And I was worn out.”
In 2008, Miller needed to raise some quick money to fund For Crying Out Loud and get his business on its feet. He released a limited edition CD of demos complete with handmade cover art for each of the 1,000 copies that were sold at concerts and his website. The title track, “Appalachian Refugee,” ranks among the finest songs he has ever written—a personal, gut-wrenching song that’s a beautiful tribute to family and love inflamed by loss. Fans immediately purchased the demo, and according to Miller, the result was remarkable.
“No one got one for free,” he says. “So every dollar was accounted for, and I had the money to make the whole CD, pay the band, the studio, the producers and engineers, the manufacturing. And now it’s mine.”
Songwriters such as Scott Miller are hard to come by. While each performance is bent on pleasing the old fans while gaining new ones, the songs reverberate in memory long after the show is over.
“People here are laying down their hard-earned pay, and they want something in return,” Miller explains. “They want their performers to risk it, live it, be it, and be real about it. I’m not talking about Las Vegas cheesy or anything like that, although that can’t be easy—Wayne Newton was from Roanoke, Va.—but they won’t tolerate someone phoning it in. I heard other musicians talk about how hard it is to play in East Tennessee specifically, how the audiences are hard to get off their hands. Well, maybe that’s because you ain’t bringing it, my friend.”
After eight albums, Scott Miller is still bringing it to the table.
“And I still feel like my best work is in front of me,” he adds. “When I stop feeling that, I will stop.”