He made a mess of this town. But you wouldn’t know it from his yard.
Scott Miller, a.k.a. “A. Scott Miller,” onetime denizen of Knoxville’s city neighborhoods and seedy bars, a man who has watched entire months of nights blur into bleary mornings, makes his home these days in a gray ranch house atop a forested hill in a particularly lush and leafy subdivision, with neatly spaced white and red azalea bushes lining the front.
“I’m pretty suburban,” he says, grimacing a little. “I mean, I had to take out the trash this morning.”
Not just that, either. As of late March, the 32-year-old Miller — former leader of the V-roys, he of the pounding heart and whispered lies and late-night sorrows — is a married man. Happily married. “The first month’s been great,” he says, and he laughs.
And then there’s “the record” — Miller’s studio solo debut, Thus Always To Tyrants, released on Sugar Hill in June. It’s credited to Scott Miller & the Commonwealth, but the band is a hazy construct; fourteen musicians are listed as “members of the Commonwealth,” and only a few of them are touring with him. “I didn’t make this record alone,” he says, explaining the tag. “I couldn’t have done this by myself.”
His friends say they can’t remember seeing him so apparently content — which is, of course, a relative thing. “He can be a surly son of a bitch, but this is as happy as I’ve ever known him to be,” says Shane Tymon, a close friend and motorcycle buddy who has known Miller during most of his years in Knoxville.
Since the 1999 demise of the V-roys, acolytes of that outfit have been awaiting Miller’s next move. While fellow V-roy Mic Harrison wrote a share of the band’s signature tunes, Miller was always its sardonic soul. Their two discs on Steve Earle’s E-Squared label were full of his alternately brooding and blazing takes on heartache, cheating and loss (the exception, “Cold Beer Hello,” only sounds happy).
“Man, it’s been a year and a half getting the son of a bitch made, from concept to getting the publishing deal, everything that I did,” Miller says, setting a can of Budweiser down on a tray table so he can prop a single-action BB gun against his right shoulder. He’s constructed a small shooting range in his backyard, which drops off into a forested gully. There’s another Bud can dangling from a string, already punctured with pellet holes, along with other random targets: a clock radio, an answering machine, a Coke can. Miller is most intent on hitting a squeezable Mickey Mouse doll, which squeaks if you hit it right between the buttons.
“I’m pretty happy with how it turned out,” he continues. “I can live with it and I can tour behind it. I can sing those songs every night and mean ‘em, not fake it.”
No wonder. Thus Always To Tyrants is a fiercely personal album, with Miller following in his own footsteps all the way. From the opener “Across The Line”, in which he says goodbye to his Shenandoah Valley home (“There’s nothing wrong with where I come from/Sometimes it’s meant to be just that”), through a batch of songs about family and relationships, to the elegiac neo-gospel finale “Is There Room On The Cross For Me”, it tracks Miller’s bumpy road to his own kind of maturity. A pair of folky Civil War songs in the middle section are drawn from his forebears’ direct experiences, and you can hear echoes of those battles throughout.
The war is kind of a leitmotif for Miller. He’s visited it before, in songs like the V-roys’ “Virginia Way” and his solo composition “The Rain” (available on his acoustic live album, Are You With Me?). It combines his passion for history — Miller has a degree from William & Mary — with an awareness of his own deep roots.
“My father is Pennsylvania Dutch,” he says. “Sometimes I felt like we fought that war over and over and over when I was a teenager. A battle of wills. He was the breadwinner who told me what to do, and I was the skinny kid who was mule-stubborn. Much like that war. Two sides who felt they were morally right and bullied and backed themselves into a corner over 80 years until it came to blows. It was stupid. Not glamorous at all. Fought by poor men for rich men. No defense for it.
“Most of that war was fought in my backyard. There are still trenches all over Virginia, what builders haven’t bulldozed over. How could it not be in my conscious? People died there.”
He had plenty of time to contemplate the place, growing up on Shenandoah farmland miles away from anything. “It wasn’t so much rural as isolated,” he says. The youngest son of parents who came out of the Great Depression, he was isolated in other ways, too; you get the sense he’s never quite belonged to any generation. The new album’s searingly autobiographical “Daddy Raised A Boy” opens with the line, “My old man could be your dad’s old man.”