Jim Miller of Western Centuries Dies Unexpectedly
This story has been updated.
When Cahalen Morrison, Ethan Lawton, and Jim Miller decided to form their own group called Western Centuries, some though it was silly to call it a “supergroup,” since none of them were exactly “superstars.” But to those who knew them—individually or altogether—they knew the term “supergroup” was totally appropriate due to the musical prowess, creativity, and history each member brought to the band. Now word has come down that Jim Miller has passed away unexpectedly, and way too soon.
Jim Miller was a long time singer, guitar player, and songwriter for numerous projects. A natural collaborator who didn’t let his own ego or a personal agenda get in the way of the music, he’d made a name for himself for how he enhanced the musical expressions of others, while being unafraid to stand in front of the mic and sing one of his own when it was his turn.
Jim Miller was born in Boston in January of 1953, but grew up on the Canadian Prairie in Saskatchewan. He joined the Saskatoon Boys Choir when he was five years old singing Broadway songs, and touring around Canada in a school bus. His parents turned him on to folk music early on, and played music upon occasion around the home. During his high school years, Jim Miller’s family moved to Connecticut, where he began playing in local rock and roll bands.
Jim’s father was a biologist, and he followed in his father’s footsteps, attending Cornell University in New York State, and earning his PhD. He did a fellowship at the Smithsonian, and worked at the Museum of Natural History in New York as an associate curator. But music was always a major passion, and he helped form the folk rock band Donna The Buffalo while in graduate school. Miller would go on to tour with the band on and off for 15 years, as they garnered a cult following, including full-time between 1999 and 2005, and appeared on five of the band’s albums.
As a rhythm guitarist and harmony singer, Jim Miller found himself in the studio for multiple important projects in roots music, always deferring the spotlight to others, even if he deserved some of it himself, including the solo album Mule To Ride from Donna The Buffalo’s Tara Nevins released in 1999 where Miller sang many of the lead parts, and If I Go Ten Thousand Miles from 1996 where he worked with Dirk Powell. Miller also worked on numerous Jim Lauderdale albums, and also collaborated with Tim O’Brien and Ginny Hawker.
How Jim got mixed up with Cahalen Morrison and Ethan Lawton in Seattle was a bit of accident. Miller moved to Seattle with his wife while she attended graduate school, and his first week in town, found himself at a music party with the two, and magic was sparked, and they began releasing albums on Free Dirt Records, including Weight of the World in 2016, Songs from the Deluge in 2018, and 2020’s Call The Captain, all to critical acclaim. Western Centuries became one of the most important independent country bands of the Pacific Northwest that were beloved coast to coast.
After the three years of his wife’s graduate school, Jim Miller moved back to New York, but Western Centuries remained together. The band had just embarked on a tour Thursday night, March 24th, set to perform at The Burren Irish Bar in Somerville, Massachusetts. Jim Miller passed away before the show due to cardiac arrest. He was 69 years old.
“We’re so sorry to announce that our dear friend and bandmate Jim Miller unexpectedly passed away last night,” the band announced Friday afternoon. “We’re all absolutely heartbroken and speechless right now. Please stay tuned for updates on upcoming shows while we grapple with this terrible loss. Jim was family, and we’re all struggling to understand this right now.”
March 25, 2022 @ 6:46 pm
Rip!!! What a tragic loss!
David: The Duke of Everything
March 25, 2022 @ 7:11 pm
Don’t know the group or this guy but very sad indeed. The uncertainty of life can be cruel. May he rest in peace.
March 25, 2022 @ 7:25 pm
This is a gut punch. I got to know Jim a little bit through a couple of interviews (he never sang lead before joining WC,) and was set to see them April 5.
Had texted him last week about guest-listing me. He always responded quickly in the past. Not this time. Oh, how sad.
March 25, 2022 @ 7:48 pm
A big loss. I’ve listened to Jim since his Donna the Buffalo days; first hearing him in 1997. A comment above mentioned he never sang lead before WC. Not true. Miller sang lead on his solo album Herd I’m Drinkin (a must own if you like WC). He also sang quite a bit of the lead on Tara Nevins Mule to Ride. He also regularly sang lead on at least one track on the various Donna the Buffalo albums and at Donna shows he sang lead quite a bit.
March 25, 2022 @ 8:56 pm
Horrible. Glad I had the opportunity to see him live with Western Centuries. The show was sensational.
weak knee-ed willie
March 26, 2022 @ 3:13 am
I never got to see Donna the Buffalo but was able to see Western Centuries twice. this news is sad.
March 26, 2022 @ 6:07 am
Super sad! Love all 3 western centuries albums so much! I have tickets to see them at Eddie’s attic April 5th. Prayers their way for sure.
March 26, 2022 @ 6:10 am
Thank you for this nice obituary. He was always friendly and professional, and had a great voice. I think Western Centuries is a grossly under-recognized band, and of course Jim was a key part of their great sound. The band hasn’t announced yet whether their shows next week are cancelled — Jim and I had scheduled a live session on WNCW for Thursday during their NC run — but expect they probably will be.
Apparently it was cardiac arrest.
March 29, 2022 @ 7:22 am
Yep. Was so looking forward to that show.
A Jim Miller Fan
March 26, 2022 @ 7:46 am
Really nice tribute to a legend. Jim’s infectious spirit loomed large and he was such an amazing singer and guitar player. Unfortunately the band did not play their gig at The Burren, as Jim passed before start time.
March 26, 2022 @ 9:17 am
What a damn tragedy. If anyone reading this hasn’t listened to Western Centuries, do yourself a favor and get on it. They are pure country gold and have some terrific writing. Here’s a song with Jim singing lead.
March 27, 2022 @ 5:17 am
shocking news! I love Western Centuries music. what a loss, rip.
March 27, 2022 @ 8:20 am
Jim’s old time music legacy should also be honored as he was a a loved champion…
Playing together at various music festivals over the last 37 years, Jim’s excitement never frayed and you could see it in his face… sharing peach brandy and “on fire” fiddle tunes was always the best and boy I’ll miss it… love you Jimmy
March 27, 2022 @ 9:34 am
Such a sad news…His solo album Herd I’m Drinkin is an old favorite, i hope it get re-release…
March 27, 2022 @ 8:08 pm
As a huge fan of Western Centuries, I’m devastated to hear of Jim’s passing.
A great loss to the world of music, especially Country Music.
March 28, 2022 @ 4:59 am
Sad news for sure. We saw Jim and Western Centuries play at the Burren back in (I think) 2019, and the show this past Thursday was the makeup for a cancelled show in 2020. The chemistry and dynamics these guys had on stage was perfect. Jim will be missed.
March 28, 2022 @ 6:53 am
what a bummer. wish i had been able to see him perform. ever since they popped up on my radar, western centuries has been in constant rotation.
March 28, 2022 @ 12:53 pm
Great guy, multi-talented, underrated musician and singer. Donna the Buffalo was never quite the same after they asked him to leave…
June 28, 2022 @ 7:37 pm
Donna the Buffalo did not ask Jim Miller to leave . He shocked everyone with his sudden departure . He was a great and talented musician .
March 29, 2022 @ 1:20 pm
RIP, Jim….such a loss…..i dearly enjoyed meeting him several times, as i did art exhibits at a dozen or so of their festivals. I JUST lost my treasured copy of “Herd I’ve Been Drinkin” this past year. Big big love to anyone who can direct me toward the possibility of finding another, original or copy…..gracias….graze on….rob…(rsevenartsatgmailcom)
March 31, 2022 @ 7:53 pm
Thanks for all the kind words about my wonderful brother.
One of the coolest moments was at MerleFest many years ago, Jim sang Mother by John Lennon. He put his heart and soul into this lonesome song.
Here he is singing “Life is strange” – a good song for this very sad time.
April 3, 2022 @ 3:25 pm
I am still processing this terrible loss and was on my way to see Donna the Buffalo when I got the news! Western Centuries was set to play in my area that following weekend as well.
I too first saw Jim with DTB in 1997 and loved all his other collaborations. He, Jim Lauderdale, Jeb Puryear, and often others would jam late night at every f
Spirit of the Suwannee music park festival where they played. Joking around w them and all present are precious memories. As a biologist myself we talked bugs and habitats from time to time particularly on the cruise in 2003 visiting all those amazing places. I am heartbroken that none will hear his clear expressive voice again. R.I.P. Dr. Miller
April 5, 2022 @ 11:59 am
So sorry for your loss he was an incredible performer I saw him many times with Donna the buffalo in Jacksonville and spirit of the Suwanee when he did Mississippi and mother it gave me goosebumps I would love to have recordings of those if you know any way to get them God bless he will be missed
April 29, 2022 @ 2:09 pm
This with the recent loss of Christian Wig has me extremely suspicious. My classmate who I graduated with owned many hardware stores in my county also ‘died suddenly.’ Some may question, others will bury their head in the sand. What a huge loss of talented people whose shoes can’t be filled. 🥺
May 22, 2022 @ 11:18 am
What a loss. Herd I’m Drinkin,’ is one of my all-time favorite albums. Jim was just plain great!