By Roger Sharman
A few weeks back saw the eagerly awaited release of the third album by one of my favourite artists around at the moment, Mr John R. Miller, following on from 2018’s incredible ‘The Trouble You Follow’ long player.
Originating from a small panhandle town in West Virginia named Hedgesville, where John first picked up a Guitar at fourteen years of age, and started playing in various bands at school.
Now, at thirty-five years of age, this is officially his first solo album and is out on Rounders records. I’m really unsure as to why ‘2014’s ‘Service Engine’ has not received that accolade. I’ll ask John the question one day, hopefully.
Country Lowdown’s long-time friend Ben Jarrell first introduced me to the music of John R. Miller, it must be three years ago now, and I ‘ve been a big fan ever since. His compositions are musical poems, painting vivid lyrical pictures that are encapsulated into three minutes bursts of, often melancholic, at times witty, not unlike another great Miller, Roger Miller.
The writing of peers such as Arlo Mckinnley, Jeremy Pinnell would be fair reference points to quantify the quality of songs that all three are producing, and remember that Mckinnley was the last person that John Prine signed to his Oh Boy Record label, shortly before his sad passing back in April 2020. Indeed, Prine is a big influence on Miller, as is Steve Earle, Townes Van Zant, Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker.
Opening up ‘Depreciated’ is one of those singles ‘Looking Over My Shoulder’, which is a perfect example of the humour that I referred to earlier, a story of trying to avoid an old love each time the story teller heads into town. Here’s a fine example of lyrical wizardry of Miller:
“I used to roam these streets ’til daylight
Holdin’ court like a wayward king
Lookin’ for the fountain of youth.”
It’s country, blues, soul and funk all rolled into this beautiful package that showcases the tightness of the band, and the beautiful tone in John’s voice, which sounds naturally ironic at times, I’m not sure if it’s delivered intentionally that way, but I find that prevalent in a few of the songs.
‘Borrowed Time’ follows in a similar vein with John in a philosophical mood for this musical poem. Fiddler, Chloe Edmonstone ably harmonizes with Miller throughout the record, as well as demonstrating that she’s up there with the best fiddle players in Country Music today.
‘Faustina’ is a song about escaping small town America. Of it Miller says “It’s pretty misunderstood, even by a lot of folks who are there. I probably didn’t have a healthy perspective when it was all I knew, and it has taken years of traveling to really appreciate what it is about it that I love. I think that’s probably true for anyone who’s from a small place, or maybe any place.” He went on to say “I felt way more at home on the road than wherever I was keeping all of my stuff.” Miller says. “But I was doing a lot of self-medicating to maintain an equilibrium. Eventually, there are diminishing returns.”
The imagery that ‘Shenandoah Shakedown’ creates is something quite incredible. The drama created by the Fiddle, then a twist in the tale is provided by Mandolin. The wordsmithery is quite simply breath-taking. The Shenandoah River is used metaphorically to aid with the narrator telling his story about the confusion he experiences in a relationship.
Shaking me down
Banks lined with foam
I saw you trembling
All wrapped up in a towel.”
Indeed, much of Miller’s story-telling is centred around small town America, he always possesses a penchant for writing about old cars, trucks or boats, and there in itself is part of the picture painted, with the addition of women and Whiskey you have the perfect ingredients for an Appalachian album, throw into the mix a band of very talented musicians, exceptional production and engineering and you have an end product as beautiful as ‘Depreciated’ is, simple right?
Next beauty to grace our ears is the stunning melancholy of ‘Coming Home’, another of the singles. Miller has said of the lyrics “We talk about home as if it can be simply found on a map. When you eventually lose the place or people to which you’re anchored, it can feel like you’re falling without a net; the only way you can start climbing again might be to hit ground.”
Tyler Childers is a fan of Miller and has covered this song on his live album, Live on Red Barn Radio I & II.
Its definitely one of my highlights of an album where the bar is set incredibly high.
Certainly, the most upbeat track on the album is ‘Old Dance Floor’ it manages to sound bright and breezy whilst maintaining that level of melancholy. This song has probably got more mainstream cross genre, cross over potential than all the others, but I really don’t believe that’s what John’s about.
‘Motor’s Fried’ is, as the name suggests, one of the vehicular songs, and one of the older songs on the album, having appeared on ‘Service Engine’ as an acoustic track, the band have been added to this version, both are magnificent and I urge both to be checked out.
Another of the tracks from ‘Service Engine’, namely ‘Back and Forth’ is the next piece of ear candy offered to us, again given a revamp for ‘Depreciated’. It’s a beautiful, sad traditional country Waltz, and anyone that has read any of my articles in the past will know by now that I’m a sucker for a waltz. It’s about a temptress weaving her magic on the dancefloor, mesmerizing the narrator, to the point where it appears he’s totally in love but feels despair in the knowledge that she just is in love with dancing and nothing else.
‘What’s Left of the Valley’ is a quite a rarity in this day and age, in that it’s an instrumental and an acoustic one at that. There’s some wonderful pickin’ on this track, stunningly accompanied by Chloe’s fiddle and indeed the other members of John’ band, ‘The Engine Lights’. This could well be taken straight from a movie score.
‘Half Ton Van’ is like the description that you would read in a newspaper, like we used to in the old days, before the internet, for a car or van sale, and I, for one, would by that truck on the basis of classified. There in lies the sheer brilliance of this song, and I haven’t even mentioned the incredible performance by the band once again on this track!
‘Fire Dancer’ closes out this record in a fitting style. It’s dark and moody, gentle and sad, about lonely nights out on the road where the only friend is the dancing flame of the camp fire. John captures the moment, in a song every single time. He’s a genius.
In summary, there’s not much more I need to say except you need to experience this record for yourselves. This album is a masterpiece, straight up ten out of ten in anyway it’s measured as far as I’m concerned, it’s sonic utopia.