With Tyler Childers selling out multiple nights at arenas these days and even mainstream country artists trying to figure out how to cash in on the whole “authenticity” thing, the nature of the Appalachian songwriter scene isn’t exactly as intimate as it was back in 2014 when John R. Miller was a go-to road dog with a base rig and an Econoline van that could get you to a show the next state over, and open it with his own songs if need be.
Tyler Childers once said of John R. Miller, “A well-travelled wordsmith mapping out the world he’s seen, three chords at a time.” Miller is the kind of true-to-life road dog that a lot of musicians wish they had the free spirit of, not to mention the same knack for words. Now on his second album for Rounder Records, John R. Miller is one of the premier songwriters right in the mix of insurgent Appalachian music helping to save country.
But don’t worry about ol’ John R. Miller becoming so big that you have to wait with sweaty palms in online ticketing cues to see if you can nab a couple for under $600. He’s one of these guys who you can still spark up a conversation with if you happen to catch him at the merch table, or loading out after the show. Though the whole Appalachian thing has reached the arena level, John R. Miller is still grounded by his roots from the eastern panhandle of West Virginia near the Potomac, and remains the real deal.
John R. Miller’s music consists of listless muses from the underbelly of life, and real world dispatches from his past and present. It’s the sound of abandoned buildings and broken down old rusty cars, and bleary spirits from bad decisions that want to blame themselves on others, but know deep down they’re self-inflicted. It’s the act of finding beauty in the decay, and perseverance in the struggle. It’s an appreciation for old things that hold up over time, and finding a strange sense of happiness from hapless fates.
If we’re being honest, Miller’s new album Heat Comes Down takes a little more warming up to than his previous ones. The songwriting is still sharp; that’s for sure. Producers Andrija Tokic and John James Tourville did a great job matching sounds to Miller’s songs, and finding smart and interesting textures to try and keep things compelling for 11 songs. But this album doesn’t reach out and grab you by your collar, demanding your attention. You have to lean in a bit more and listen.
The departure from previous records really comes via John R. Miller’s vocal approach. He’s always had sort of an endearing, old man quality about his delivery, despite his youngish age. But on Heat Comes Down, Miller really leans into this grizzled, tired character. Most all the songs feature sedate and dry singing that at times feels more like simple talking in tone. This challenges the ear to find the melody, and sometimes, the meaning or passion behind the words.
When you go back and listen to John R. Miller’s previous albums, this more languorous approach is unmistakable, and hard to take as anything but purposeful. Though it does enhance the sagacious nature of Miller’s songs, some just might find a song like “Insomnia Blues” a little too sleepy.
The good news is that Heat Comes Down is definitely a grower. Those who listen intently and hang with the effort are rewarded with arguably some of John R. Miller’s best writing yet. “Crumbling Pie” is sort of the centerpiece and de facto title track, with line after line that would impress the corpse of Townes Van Zandt with the prophetic turns of phrase revealing truths that ring especially poignant in these dystopian times.
The Lord pushes, the devil shoves
Maybe hate’s just been looking for love
Many of the other songs are more matter-of-fact, drawing their appeal from the vibrancy of the descriptions as opposed to the poetic disposition. When “Conspiracies, Cults, and UFOs” comes along, it injects the album with some needed energy, even if it comes with some repetitiveness. The track also reminds you that beyond anything else, John R. Miller remains an unrepentant road dog.
He sings in the opening song “Give me a mile, I’ll take an inch. Give me a shovel, I can dig my own ditch.” Miller comes across as one of these guys who would purposely scuttle his career if he felt like he was getting too successful since this would sully his sense of self-worth and come at the sacrifice of his muse. He likes to be near the bottom. That’s where he feels comfortable, and draws his inspiration. Like many of us, Miller can be self-defeating by nature, and get too wrapped up in his own head. But hearing him work through all this in real time comes across as therapeutic for the audience.
Now that it feels like you can shake any bush in the holler and the next Oliver Anthony might fall out, for some listeners their musical pursuits have led them away from finding the next big thing, and seeking out the next small one that will remain unpretentious, free of public posturing, and that’s still making music for the right reasons. That is where John R. Miller started, and that’s where he is now. And even though some of his buddies might now be cashing 7-figure royalty checks and flying private, it is they who envy him, because he’s the one who’s figured out how to keep it real.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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