John R. Miller’s music, used cars, and auto repair is officially open for business coast to coast, specializing in swapping out starters and alternators, rebuilding carburetors, selling used tour vans, and peddling songs about hard-hearted women, hand-to-mouth subsistence, and the slow sunsetting of Appalachia.
Once simply a jewel of rural West Virginia beloved by locals, the signal of this singing troubadour and musician-for-hire has now been boosted by Rounder Records through his new album Depreciated, marking John R. Miller as the latest worthy inductee into the swelling regimen of authentic Appalachian singers and songwriters, backed by his band The Engine Lights.
Oh trust me, there are plenty of new applicants out there all trying to ape Tyler Childers, singing about coal, and more coal, and maybe cocaine. But only one of these souls comes publicly endorsed by the redhead himself who once called John R. Miller “a well-travelled wordsmith mapping out the world he’s seen, three chords at a time,” and can say in all likelihood he inspired Tyler’s approach and vice versa, since they both ascribe to the “To sing it you first have to live it” school of country and roots music making.
Sometimes John R. Miller’s songs are about vehicles. Sometimes they’re about women. Sometimes they’re about both, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which one he’s singing about. Both will break your heart, both will leave you stranded. But you keep looking for the right one to ride or die with. Meanwhile life is one back breaking setback after another, yet you keep slogging forward with some strange beauty discovered simply from enduring.
Produced by Justin Francis and the great guitarist Adam Meisterhans, Depreciated is more country than it is anything else, but doesn’t really try to prove to you how country it is. Instead, the songs worry much more about fitting the mood of the story, which often is a moody or gloomy outlook from the bottoms of life, but some fuzzy and funky elements filter in, making use of Miller’s appreciation for J.J. Cale.
Miller really impresses you with his acoustic guitar work on this album. It’s his intricate picking that often sets the melody, focuses the ear, and endears the song to the audience, no matter where it may go eventually. The fact that the songs all started as wood and wire and scribbles on paper is always respected, even as the effort is undertaken to make them something more. You can hear this especially on the song “Faustina,” and the gorgeous instrumental “What’s Left Of The Valley.”
The songwriting veers from the folksy attitudes of “Motor’s Fried” and “Half Ton Van” to more poetic and involved stories like “Faustina” and “Shenandoah Shakedown,” or the character-driven “Back and Forth” about a woman who loves dancing more than she will ever love you. No matter the approach, it’s that lived-in quality that makes the songs of John R. Miller unique and lovable.
Unlike the Stapletons and Childers of the world, you strain to see the wide appeal here. The mood and songs are just a little too dour for primetime. Granted though, for those inclined to root around in the alleys and gutters beyond popular music and stumble upon someone like John R. Miller, primetime is what they’re looking to avoid. The song “Old Dance Floor” does sound like it could find a wider audience though.
Hopefully with some of the positive reception John R. Miller has mustered with Depreciated, he can finally afford a decent rig that won’t break down on him if nothing else. And hopefully that doesn’t eat into his muse and inspiration. Because John R. Miller feels like one of those artists we’ll be enjoying for years to come.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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