In 1927 when recording engineer and talent scout Ralph Peer set out for the Victor Talking Machine Company with his newfangled audio recording contraption to capture the songs of rural whites living in the South, he didn’t know he was about to set the wheels in motion that would eventually lead to country music becoming a multimillion-dollar commercial enterprise and see today’s country stars packing football stadiums with throngs of fans. But what he did know is that enveloped in virtual obscurity, and hiding in the hills and hollers of Appalachia and beyond were some of the purest, and most magical musical expressions just waiting to be discovered, captured, and shared with the rest of the world, and that their preservation and proliferation to the listening public was imperative.
The recording technology has certainly changed since Ralph Peer’s time, but discovering and capturing America’s most pure rural voices and expressions remains just as challenging. Though the hills and hollers are not as cumbersome as they once were to connect artists and their songs with markets of listeners all across the globe, the prevalence and ease of audio recording, and the emphasis on the commercial application of music and the myopic focus on superstars has created its own hardships for discovering, supporting, and celebrating true talent.
In the rural regions of Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina and adjacent regions, there still lies untapped musical riches waiting to be discovered no different than natural resources lurking beneath the soil. This is where Tyler Childers recently rose from, even though as locals will attest, he’d been entertaining dance halls and beer joints, and appearing on community radio stations in the region for years.
Like Tyler Childers, John R. Miller has been appreciated on the local level for a while, and appeared on the acclaimed Mountain Stage in West Virginia as a member of the band The Fox Hunt. Originally from the tiny West Virginia town of Hedgesville in the very northeast tip of the state, John R. Miller is a songwriter whose selfless approach to music has seen him touring as a bass player in such outfits as the Hackensaw Boys, Locust Honey, William Matheny’s band, and with others.
But now it’s time to shift the focus on to John R. Miller himself, his songs, his stories and sound, and his own band called The Engine Lights—a mix of dirty country and Appalachian string band racket that’s raw and real, and the right style to give the music of John R. Miller the type of grime it deserves. John R. and crew took enough time away from prior commitments, odd jobs, and family obligations to record and release a new album called The Trouble You Follow that was just released to revel in obscurity, but offer sweet joy for those clued in enough to listen. Suffice to say, if Ralph Peer was alive today, he’d be salivating at what he’d unearthed.
As real as the sharp curves of mountain roads and the abandoned shucks of coal towns, John R. Miller weaves his stories of struggle and survival with a poetic wit, honesty and abandon, and a palpable authenticity. These are songs so tucked away up a holler, to find them you have to creep past No Trespassing signs, pit-mixed guard dogs, grandpa with a shotgun above the cabin door, and slip into a thicket where trees grow up through the ruins of old mine shaft openings. You creek open an old ramshackle door on rusty hinges, and there you discover the music you seek that is unblemished by commercial concerns or calculating adherence to current trends. This is music that smells like the smoke from an old wood stove that refuses to draw, and warm Pabst in a can with cigarette butts swimming in it.
Ornery and attitudinal, but sweet when it wants to be, The Trouble You Follow is about taking all the wrong forks in the road and never being dealt a lucky draw, but deciding to be content and live your life anyway, the mess be damned. It’s fair to draw parallels with Tyler Childers who touts John R. Miller and the Engine Lights a fair bit himself from stage after weaving the same tour circuit for a while, but this is more the unpolished version, in a good way.
You can’t be so naive to trust that the powers that be in the music business will allow the best music of a given era to just pass under your nose. You have to go digging. Ralph Peer knew that. And though he probably never imagined his name would still be getting invoked 90 years after he set up in Bristol, Tennessee to record Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, he probably felt strongly that the music he recorded would still be around for generations to come. Whether the work of John R. Miller and the Engine Lights will enjoy a similar fate is up for time to decide, but it’s certainly worth the effort to unearth.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)
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