JC MILLER: THE UNDISPUTED KING OF VINTAGE AMERICANA
HIS songs summon images of fading sun-soaked desert towns under bright blue skies, of drifters, mavericks’, magicians, and card sharps. Haunted men desperately attempting to escape their past, in search of an ultimately elusive, brighter future.
He’s the epitome of the nomadic guitarist as gunslinger, yet JC MILLER is no natural son of the Wild West, but Detroit born, where his love of vintage Americana began.
Inspired and influenced by Neil Young, Ernest Hemingway, Rick Danko, and many others, their memories are unashamedly kept alive and celebrated through his songs.
“All of my music, in a sense, is an homage to my heroes,” he said.
“I am always happy to credit my inspirations and touchstones. I love turning people on to the 70’s Southern Rock sound, or the hard-bitten text moods of Cormac McCarthy, or Leon Russell’s piano and organ work, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar mojo. When people say they hear Rick Danko of The Band or The Allman Brothers, or Lowell George of Little Feat, it’s all to the good. It’s a deep river and I love swimming in it.
“The trick is to do something new with it and that’s where I like to craft vocal and lyrics against soundtrack, what does this music tell me, what is it telegraphing? A lot of times the music comes first and then I write down what it sounds like to me. Where is this taking place? When is this taking place? It’s a back-and-forth that’s really energizing, there’s lots of potential to build upon the guitar literature and poetry combinations created to date.
“I like to try to paint pictures with sound, create images with words, honour what came before, but set my ears and eyes towards the new, the newly shaped combination that still feels tried and true.”
To discover JC’s music is to take a life-affirming road trip across America’s Sun Belt, his songs a mixture of folklore, legends, and a few home truths.
“I mean, it’s all autobiographical in a way, but also, I try to keep it universal so it’s not too specific and hopefully everyone can relate to it,” he added.
“I love to write about places in general, creeks and streams, mountains, the desert, houses, specific places, Terlingua, Texas, Bogalusa, and Louisiana. These are my backdrops for my soundscapes. Also animals, bears, snakes, raccoons, swordfish, plants and trees, ‘Southern Buckthorn,’ anything but relationships which is territory that seems to be well covered.
“It’s all about creating a mood, a setting. America, the past, or now. The Sun Belt, my family or yours. I’m always nostalgic for the bygone eras, the old cars, vintage guitars, Tiki bars, driving open roads at night, dilapidation, loss, and paintings. Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ says it all for me. Movies, John Ford, Anthony Mann, Westerns, Technicolor, Film Noir, Silver Screen. My identity is made out of theses tributaries from a giant river.”
Miller has also formed a partnership with legendary musician and producer Marty Rifkin whose CV shows previous collaborations with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Glen Campbell, and many others.
“I was working with Marty on a commercial thing, and he kept commenting about where was this southern style music coming from out of a California boy? So, we decided to explore it further and as we dove deeper into my pop’s family’s past, it turned out that my way of playing was very ‘Texas-style,’ very Southern, sun belt-centric. It’s just how I hear things and how I play,” explained Miller.
“The guitar hammer-ons and pull-offs, the vocal nature of the guitar, it’s inspired by Duane Allman, Allen Collins, Dickey Betts, Toy Caldwell – I play with my thumb like he did, I hardly ever use a pick in my right hand. Ed King, Gary Rossington, The Atlanta Rhythm Section, Dr. John, and when I traced my dad’s family and their travels and home-fronts, it was pretty much a straight line across Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and of course, Southern California.
“Marty is super talented obviously, and it’s a lot of fun working together, so I figured if I just keep writing songs, we can keep on recording them because there is nowhere I would rather be than recording tunes with him. We love the art of the craft, we live for the tone of the amp, the swing of the beat. His skill set is absolutely nuts producer, engineer, and all the tech stuff I am hopeless with. And Marty as a player, oh my God, bass, pedal steel, dobro, mandolin, he’s the absolute best and I feel so fortunate our paths crossed.
“We record in the old Beach Boys’ studio and Marty says Glen Campbell sat with him in the chair I sit in just like back in the day when he was a session player with The Beach Boys. Anyone that wants to have their jaw drop on the ground should Google, ‘Glen Campbell guitar solo,’ and see what comes up. Total insanity!
“He’s kinda the greatest thing ever – singer, guitar slinger. In short Marty and I have the same heroes and we both refuse to repeat the past. We have to create something new, add to the narrative, the collective power of these great musicians and writers that have come before us. If we copy somebody or something else, there is no point in doing it. The exploration and experimentation – always on the verge of failure – is our go-to mode.
“I try not to get too clever and literate with the songs. It’s critical to me to be accessible and not too erudite, or fancy ladd-ish. Marty and I refer to it all the time in the studio as ‘bonehead’ – a high compliment by the way – which we strive for.
“I like things to feel inevitable rather than arbitrary, and I like to craft the ‘amusement ride quotient of a soundtrack or soundscape,’ therefore getting too hung up on words, or even meaning for that matter, can hurt or hinder the overall feeling. In short, not too dumb, not too smart, tell it like it is, nothing too fancy, try new stuff, look to the greats from the past, and create a new pastiche that goes down smooth – but a little but rough and human around the edges. It’s shaping form with sound and attaching words that carry meaning of some kind, but since it’s highly personal, I must make sure it’s universal on another level.
“I write all kinds of music, metal, jazz, ethereal underscore to bluegrass, but my obsession is the staying power and timelessness that was created in the 1970s in the American South. Lynyrd Skynyrd, saw them in ’73, or thereabouts, open up for The Who. They finished with ‘Free Bird’ and we all went home before The Who came on – and my friends and I have never been the same since.
“Leon Russell, The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Little Feat, the list goes on and on, it’s just stunning to me the universality of this art that came from such a specific place and time, it kinda blows my mind.”
JC Miller is currently releasing a single every three weeks. It’s borderline, musical madness, so why do it?
“This is basically our production schedule, so we will get backed up if we don’t keep ‘em dropping. We started out making albums, but people don’t really listen to music that way anymore, although I still do, but the platforms make it so ya get more momentum from singles than albums so that’s where we ended up.
“I am a prolific writer, and I am a lifelong studio rat, and the songs are meant to engage each other, the topics, the titles, the riffs, the beats. I hope it washes over people in a positive way. I want the catalogue to be unified and consistent, to develop and advance certain themes and conflicts of the American West and American South.”
And he’s not afraid of pushing himself, and perhaps more importantly, in testing the staying power of his audience, new or potential. For example, ‘The Man From Louisiana,’ clocks in at over seven minutes.
“People make fun of my seven-minute songs, I don’t blame them truthfully, however on the other hand, a friend said about ‘Notebooks from the West,’ “seven minutes 42 seconds and you don’t want it to end.”
“But if people are looking to experience my music for the first time, I would have to say ‘Laredo Journal’ would be the single, and ‘Southern Buckthorn’ the album. I try to have it that you can dive in anywhere, for as much or little as you want, and the musical DNA is still present at any level.”
Immerse yourself in the world of JC MILLER: JCMiller (jcmillermusic.com)