Singer/songwriter Scott Miller, formerly of the V-Roys and now a Sugar Hill recording artist, is a true triple threat. He is a great songwriter and singer and fantastic guitar player. Miller's music, however, does not defy description—pure and simple, it rocks. While the Sugar Hill label has long been associated with bluegrass artists, Miller's jangly, twangy, lean, rocking sound somehow fits into the label's historic mission. If there is truly such a thing as alt-country, "Upside/Downside" is it.
The record's title refers to Miller's unique ability to include rave-up rockers like the album's opening track, "It Didn't Take Too Long" with straight acoustic story songs like "Amtrak Crescent." In fact, "Amtrak Crescent" spawned the idea for Miller and The Commonwealth's current tour, which is co-sponsored by Amtrak and the Sugar Hill label. The song, and also the tour, focuses on the Crescent Line train—which goes from New Orleans to New York City. I caught up with Miller on the phone at his Knoxville home recently to talk about the record, his band and the tour, which follows the towns, both great and small, of the Crescent Line.
"Well, the tour has been a logistical nightmare," said Miller. "But hey, that's the music business. What I wanted to do was to see what the eastern half of the United States looks like now. And the best way to do that is looking out the window of a train car." The tour will carry Miller through towns like Hattiesburg, Tuscaloosa, Ala., Greenville, S.C., and Charlottesville, Va., as well as larger stops such as Philadelphia, Atlanta and, of course, winding up in New York City. As often as possible, the band will set up and play a set in the train station, as well as a later show at an established music venue. Miller had heard about Jackson's recent renovations to our train station and was excited about the prospect. "If that station's finished by the time we get there, we're playing in it," Miller said.
In talking with Miller, it became clear that the tour is less of a publicity stunt than a songwriter's way to get a visual and spiritual update of how this part of the country is doing. "It's been 20 years since I've seen some of the places we'll be going through," Miller said. "I'm probably not going to like everything I see." As Miller writes in "Amtrak Crescent":
It used to be pretty on the eastern shore,
Now it's more New York down to Baltimore.
It took so much effort just to move this train Why does everything around me have to look the same?
In addition to the tour dates, Miller is amassing an audio and video diary of his conversations with Amtrak workers, conductors and passengers. There may be plans in the future for an audio or video documentary of the tour.
Even if Miller's current tour did not have such an interesting backdrop, the shows are supporting a phenomenal record. "Upside/Downside" is a lean, taut country rock classic. Most of the songs clock in well under three minutes, and even in that small window of time give an impression like a steel hammer driving a rail spike. There are rockers and shuffles, like "Raised by the Graves," which sounds like Simon and Garfunkel's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" played on a beat-up Telecaster. Elsewhere, there are straight-up country numbers, with cameos by Patty Griffin and bluegrass legend Tim O'Brien.
However, the one constant throughout this record is The Commonwealth, Miller's outstanding band. Park Chisolm on bass, Shawn McWilliams on drums and Eric Fritsch on keyboards sound like they have been supporting Miller's songs for 20 years, although the association is relatively recent. While Miller is modest and self-effacing about his own talent, he could not resist the opportunity to do a little good Southern bragging about his band: "Half the time, I play solo acoustic tours, and when I get a chance to play with guys this intuitive, and this good, it's just more than a songwriter could hope for."
Scott Miller and the Commonwealth are rolling into the city of Jackson on Friday, Jan. 23, and after a set at the train station, they will play later that evening at Hal & Mal's. In my conversation with Miller, I pointed out, a little reluctantly, that the Amtrak Crescent Line does not actually go through Jackson, which Miller readily acknowledged with a good laugh. "Ah, the music business," he said.
Scott Miller will play at Hal & Mal's, Jan. 23, at 9 p.m. Cover charge is $5. "Upside/Downside" is available at Bebop Record stores and by visiting www.sugarhillrecords.com.
Reviewed by Eric Stracener