Thursday, November 17, 2011

Shenandoah Broke Down - An Interview with Songwriter Scott Miller

As some of you have read here occasionally, I am a big fan of music about hard times and hard places.  Anything written in those conditions was made for me to listen and absorb. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought it'd be interesting to seek out some of my favorite songwriters and see what moves them.  What is it about American places, and the American outdoors, that lend themselves to these styles of writing and music?  

One of my first efforts was to track down Virginia-born (and Tennessee-claimed) Scott Miller, former member of Knoxville's  V-Roys, aka Knoxville Viceroys, and currently writing and touring solo.  He's also gearing up for the V-Roys 20th Reunion Show, in Knoxville on New Year's Eve (details below). 

I've seen Scott play several times, and also spent some time drinking and talking with him in years past.  I only remember parts of those conversations, so here's a recent conversation between us that was sober on both ends.

River Mud: Scott, thanks for taking a few minutes.  I’m a long time fan of yours, and have seen you play all over the Mid-Atlantic. We even closed down Easton, Maryland’s Tidewater Inn together a few years ago, while we griped about being sons of engineers.  

Scott Miller: Yes! Kirk. Well, my drinking days are over ( I hope) but that was always a highlight to me of playing Easton--shutting that bar down. Was that the night the wedding reception was in there and the ambulance pulled up in the hotel portico and I made a reference to the "smiling bride on her wedding day " joke...while standing beside the bride? 

RM: Yes. That was the night.  Here we are at about 11pm; unfortunately the pictures continue past 2am, and we both started drinking before 8pm.....

Scott: Then you see why my drinking days are over...

RM: Yeah. Can't fault you there.  Back to the present, though:  everybody’s heard about the V-Roys compilation and reunion show.  How’s that going, and is the show already sold out?

Scott: The show sold out in two hours. There is talk of either moving it to a larger venue since there is still demand or  possibly adding a second night. I hope people will check out the V-roys website or find us on the social media of their choosing (facebook) for details. That will be a hell of a night regardless.

RM: One of my favorite V-Roys tunes has always been one that you wrote – “Virginia Way.” It’s obviously about a young man in the Shenandoah – were you writing about a specific town? How autobiographical is it?

Scott: That song is  written from the perspective of a soldier from the Shenandoah Valley but in Knoxville, TN. (So that much is pretty autobiographical.) Lots of people don't realize ( even some that reside there) that East Tennessee was pro-union during the Civil War. Some even called it "Lincoln's Baby" and there are theories of why that is and how it STILL shapes that area but we don't have that much space here to get into that. But it is fascinating to be sure.  

Anyway, I had just moved there and found a monument for a New York Regiment near Fort Sanders downtown. Made me think of being so far from home. I felt a bit "stationed" there at first myself, although I came to love Knoxville ( and still do) more than I can say.

RM: You, Mic, and the boys are generally regarded as “Knoxville’s Best Band Ever.”  Why Knoxville? It’s been such an amazing home for all of you (musically) that I can’t believe that you just fell into town accidentally, and it just worked out.  Am I wrong?

Scott: Well, it's called "The Scruffy Little City" and we were scruffy fellas, --although Mic ain't so little--he grew up logging. I would NOT tangle with that guy. Its a good thing he has a sweet disposition....

Knoxville sits in a valley and is a watershed in every sense of the word for VA, KY and NC: culturally, biologically and you know, literally geographically: the water flows there...  It's a special town in so many ways: tough and pragmatic with a chip on its shoulder. East Tennessee was its own state for a while; the State of Franklin. 

Its always been underfunded in comparison to Middle and West Tennessee, well anyway, I got that chip too obviously. Think of it like this: Knoxville was the older brother who went off and fought in the war, came back home and worked so the little brother ( Nashville) could go to Vandy, wear raccoon coats, become a doctor  and live the cultured life. 23 Skidoo!

RM: Do you and your wife spend much time outdoors either at home in Tennessee or while you’re on the road? What do you like to do outdoors, beyond shooting stuff in your back yard? 

Scott: Well, living next to the Great Smoky Mountains makes that easy. That's one of ( if not THE) most visited national park in the nation. We are/were much more day hikers than campers. Although the first year I lived there (1990--I guess you asking about "Virginia Way" made me think of it) when I didn't know anybody I hiked and camped almost every trail in it. We since have moved back to the Shenandoah Valley in the last month  and our outdoor time is spent as labor on our family farm here. And lots of room to shoot stuff.

RM: In your travel and writing, what kind of process makes you decide, “I need to write about Antietam Creek,” and “I need to write about these people, who have a relationship with this place?” 

Scott: There is no pattern really. But if an idea persists or nags--then I'll eventually start hacking it at it. (And yes, "hack" would be the appropriate word there). Songs that I like are based more on ideas than a turn of phrase or subject matter. Although on my last hike near Pittman Center up Porter's creek--I learned of a family that was moved out of there to make way for the national park; they were relocated to Norris, TN. Then along came TVA and pushed them out AGAIN and put them....( wait for it).... in Oak Ridge...then along came the Manhattan Project...poor bastards. That's a rare example of when some thing or place drives the writing.

RM: What makes a place – the Shenandoah, Manassas, Spanishburg – worth writing about when you are working through your process? 

Scott: Like I said, I generally start with an idea and then one of these places will fit and a light bulb ( 20 watts at the max) will flicker briefly....And always remember what Townes Van Zandt said: "Sometimes reality doesn't rhyme" so you can't believe anything you hear in any song as far as I'm concerned.

RM: Have any fans told you that they learned about a new part of American geography or history from listening to your music?

Scott: For sure. When I was on Sugar Hill they put together a CD of my "history" songs and I actually played at some schools ( now that is a tough audience). I guess it might make sense and take off in other schools if I didn't cuss in most of them..

RM: What individual place has had the greatest impact on you as a writer?

Scott: Gotta be Knoxville, TN. Home of James Agee, Cormac McCarthy, Todd Steed,  and RB Morris just to name a few. For good or bad  ( and I think all the better) I learned all my chops there. Go Vols.

RM: As you noted in “Amtrak Crescent,” there is a lot of homogenizing going on out there, on the American countryside.  Is there any redemption to it (or from it), in your opinion? 

Scott: Sure. Its so much easier for picky eaters now. They can always find something they like.

"Why does everything around me have to look the same?"

RM: Not the response I expected! So, what’s so special about American places?

Scott: Well, what is so special about America? The Constitution, jazz music and Superbowl halftime...We've got it ALL and from all over. I've not travelled abroad enough to really answer that. I mean, I would think one would need to travel A LOT to be able to gain the perspective needed there without sounding like a Hank Williams Jr. song...zing!

"The Rain" is about the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (1864)

RM: Finally, since you’ve spent most of your life based out of east Tennessee and western Virginia, how does a Virginian differ from a Tennessean?

Scott: Well, you know the joke:  How many Virginians does it take to change a lightbulb? 

FIVE: one to change it and four to sit around and talk about how good the old one was...that's pretty much spot on. Tennesseans are much more pragmatic. 

Here's an example:
I have and use my great grandfather's typewriter. 

Soon after I moved to Knoxville a piece was broken and I found an old guy (who worked out of his house) who fixed typewriters. I took it to him and left it for probably a month, and then went back to get it. He was sitting on his front porch, plugged into his oxygen and smoking a cigarette ( need I say more?).

When I asked if my typewriter was ready he said, "Aw hell, I didn't mess with that thing. I got an old electric down in the basement I'll let you have for $20 that will work better than that old thing!"

"No thank you, sir." I said. "That was my great grandfather's and it has sentimental value to me."

"Son," he said, " We don't get our ice out of the creek anymore. We use refrigerators."  

"Back in Allentown where my dad worked..."

Scott's albums can be purchased on his home page or here on
The V-Roys albums can be purchased here on; their  compilation of favorites "Sooner or Later" - just released a few weeks ago -  can be purchased (mp3's too!) here on their website.


Joe said...

Great interview, always love me some candid (even sober) Miller!

I helped him close down Stella Blue one snowy night in Asheville, it was a true honor to help load that van. :)

Kirk Mantay said...

That's awesome Joe, we've long wanted to see him in Ash Vegas and haven't made it happen yet. I do love the music scene there (my wife is from Hickory, so we make it down there once in a while....more rarely now that we have a little one in tow).

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