Americana legend kicks off latest tour before capacity crowd at Bijou
“I read my obituary in the Maryville Daily Times this morning,” Scott Miller said, garnering uproarious laughter and wild applause from the packed house crowded into the Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville on Friday, Oct. 13. In a fitted gray suit and a matching silver streak running through his shaggy hair and beard, Miller stood facing his loyal, longtime supporters, soaking it all up. With that ever-present, nervous energy, he shifted his thin, rangy frame, the vein in his neck pulsing. Clenching his jaw into a grin and flashing his trademark crazed gleam, he silently signaled to the gathered masses that he knew what time it was: It was time to rock.
Some performers lose a step with age. They get looser, self-congratulatory, maybe too relaxed. Their fingers get bloated, their mind slows or they over-sing or over-play their songs in a slow, bombastic or melodramatic fashion, like a caricature of themselves. Perhaps they get overweight, drunk or sloppy. Their tours look more and more like lazy victory laps.
Not the case with Miller. He got sober in 2010 and recently took over full-time at his family’s cattle farm, a lifestyle that surely supports clarity, vitality and introspection. It also takes him away far/long enough from the music to make him miss it and make his fans miss him. It creates the demand for Miller Time; it builds suspense.
And there was a lot of suspense surrounding this performance, primarily because of the rumors swirling around social media that this would be Miller’s final show, rumors so persistent that he felt compelled to address them via a Facebook post mere hours before taking to the Bijou stage. Parodying the statement made by Paul McCartney (that the Beatle himself had lifted from Mark Twain) refuting false reports of his death, Miller dispelled any notion that he was finished musically.
Thus what the teeming crowd inside the venerable venue saw on that Friday the 13th was a refreshed, clear-headed man at the height of his game, with a sharp, laser-focus and an intense fire for the music. He was tight on his cues, told illuminating stories and cackled quips. And as he played through one audience favorite after another, it set in that he has slowly and quietly built an iconic body of work over the years.
Miller opened with “Sin in Indiana” and played classics like “Ciderville Saturday Night,” “I Made a Mess of This Town,” “8 Miles a Gallon,” “Freedom’s a Stranger,” “Across the Line” and later encored with “Amtrak Crescent.”
Songs from the new record he featured included a revised version of “Lo Siento,” the song he’s been playing about Spanishburg, West Virginia, for a few years now; “This River’s Mine/This Valley’s Yours,” the single with the haunting line, “My love moves in her own time;” and “Body and Soul,” a cover of a Bill Monroe hit written by Virginia Stauffer. Bryn Davies’ harmony vocals on the latter song were powerful and moving, and they surely made the crowd wish to hear more from her.
Conspicuously absent from the set: “The People Rule,” “Drunk All Around This Town” and “Is There Room on the Cross for Me?” The first possibly could have been omitted to avoid creating any political tension in a friendly hometown room on the first night of the tour, though perhaps its simplicity just didn’t fit in with the lush folk songs and big rockers that dominated the set. The other two occasionally have been left off of setlists before. While he occasionally will pull them out, one wonders if he has grown out of both, the former for its heavy-handed party bravado and the latter for its more overt religious imagery.
Davies and Annie McCue, the studio string section and the reason for the Ladies Auxiliary addition to the Commonwealth, are amazing together on bass and a variety of stringed instruments, respectively. Seth Hopper (Christabel and the Jons, Kukuly and the Fuego) ripped some killer fiddle solos and generally held his own trading licks with McCue – no small feat, to be sure. This collection of players seemed far better than how Miller described their coming together: at best, a lackadaisical rehearsal the night before in which they convened late and adjourned after only a few songs. It was hard to believe given how tight they sounded and how passionately they moved through the songs.
For his first act, Miller built a loyal following with his weird, wild and rowdy originals and barroom covers as a member of beloved ‘90s alt-country band the V-Roys. In doing so, he firmly established his legacy locally and forever entrenched himself in Knoxville music lore, even achieving some national notoriety along the way by doing things like touring with Steve Earle (to whose label the band were signed) and playing Farm Aid in 1997.
When Miller played the Bijou’s Reoccupation Revival benefit show with the Commonwealth in 2005, he was in the middle of his second act, slowly building a strong following as a solo artist and bandleader. He would produce several strong records that now are beacons in the canon of the millennial Americana resurgence. During that period of time, he and the Commonwealth briefly served as the house band for Jeff Foxworthy’s “Blue Collar TV.” Miller performed duets with other Americana stars like Patty Griffin. He also toured relentlessly. With his new cattle gig, people fear that this era has come to an end, that he’ll tour less and play with a less-steady lineup.
But the Miller who stood on stage at the Bijou this month felt like a seasoned veteran of the music business, one with a revitalized love for the craft and someone with legendary status moving confidently into his third act, full of new stories to tell.