For over 15 years, John R. Miller has been arguably one of the hardest working musicians in Appalachia, touring with everyone from the Hackensaw Boys, Sierra Ferrell and J.P. Harris to The Fox Hunt and Prison Book Club.
But all that work takes its toll, and throughout that time Miller found himself waking up every morning with a glass of vodka in his hand to cope with the lifestyle. So, in 2017 he left his native West Virginia for Nashville, a place he knew that he could maintain his sobriety while also making a living as a musician. The move also coincided with him putting more of a focus on music under his own name, with support from backing band The Engine Lights.
Miller’s migration has proven fruitful thus far. In addition to taking control of his sobriety, shortly after moving to music city he began work on his latest album Depreciated, which has since found a home with the iconic Rounder Records. He’s also been able to forge friendships with some of the region and industry’s biggest stars including Tyler Childers, who he’ll open for at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Sept. 30.
Ahead of the release of Depreciated, we spoke with Miller about linking up with Rounder Records, chance musical encounters and his West Virginia roots.
Have you stayed around Nashville this past year or have you been able to make it back home to West Virginia?
I haven’t been able to get home much at all in the last year and it’s weighed a lot on my mind. The one time I did was for my brother’s wedding. I’m looking forward to getting back and making the rounds to see everyone. [My partner / bandmate] Chloe and I have done a lot of hiking lately which has made me feel connected to the ones back home as well. We’ve explored a lot around Chattanooga, Murfreesboro and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.
We made a trip not too long ago out to Colorado and hiked around Steamboat Springs. That was our one big ‘let's get the heck out of here’ trip. We’ve both spent so much time traveling on tour but never really had the chance to travel and enjoy our surroundings. It was really nice to be able to camp and take it all in. It’s really something out there.
It seems like you’re still very fond of home. That’s something that fades in some people over time. What do your West Virginia roots and the state’s music scene mean to you?
West Virginia has such a rich history of music and art. It’s such a beautiful place. I still feel very anchored there even though I live in Nashville now. So many great songwriters and fiddlers from the area have had a huge influence on me. People like Hazel Dickens, Bill Withers and friends like William Matheny, a songwriter living in Morgantown who has a Tom Petty meets Jackson Browne style about him I love. There’s a bunch of great people all around the state doing incredible work. I’m thankful to be able to call those mountains my home.
In the past you’ve spoken openly about depression and running yourself dry with constant touring and the lifestyle accompanying it. Is that what you’re referencing with your song ‘Motor’s Fried?’
Actually, I originally recorded that song for a buddy of mine that was going through a hard time. It’s one of the older songs that made it onto the record. I wrote it in 2013 or 2014 so I wasn’t worn out just yet.
Another of the older songs on the album is ‘Coming Down’, which Tyler Childers has been incorporating into his shows for a few years now. I know y’all have become good friends as well. How did y’all first link up?
I met Tyler a number of years ago hanging around the Huntington [West Virginia] scene. Our mutual friend Ian was booking a bar called Shamrock's - he was reaching out to bands on Myspace to come and play there, so brought us down. Around that time, Tyler was just getting started playing gigs around town too. We ended up playing some shows with him and became friends that way. I'm a huge fan and it was an honor that he decided to cover one of my songs.
There are so many similarities I notice between y’all, from the Appalachian grit in your vocals to the poetic and vivid manner in which you write. Y’all both make the mundane seem glamorous. One song of yours that reminds me of this is ‘Half Ton Van.’ It sounds like a collection of all the crazy ad descriptions you see on Craigslist turned into song. How did the tune come about?
You’re spot on. I spent a month looking on Craigslist and AutoTrader for a van. I didn’t have that much money, so I was looking at all kinds of junk. The song is an accumulation of all the wacky vehicle descriptions and sales pitches that I encountered both online and in-person during my search. The van I ended up with was a rusty old Savanna van. It was reliable enough that it got us around for a couple of years.
What’s the road been like getting to the release of this album? We all know what happened last year, but at the same time the delay gave you the opportunity to forge a relationship with Rounder Records.
We had most of the album recorded in February 2020 before the pandemic hit. There was obviously a lot of uncertainty about when we’d be able to get back to playing music, if ever, but it also bought time for the record to find its proper home with Rounder. Prior to that we were just planning to release it independently.
The relationship with Rounder came about when Justin Francis, who engineered and co-produced the record, was overheard mixing it in his Nashville studio. He was asked if it could be sent to Mark Williams, who does A&R for the Concord family of labels. He liked it enough that he got a hold of my manager to get the ball rolling. We had a few meetings, something I’m still not used to after all this time, and soon got things finalized. It feels as though the process has moved glacially at times, but I’m excited to get the motor running again.
John R. Miller’s album Depreciated will be available July 16 via Rounder Records. Listen to 'Motor's Fried' below now.
John R. Miller is the featured artist on Holler's Introducing Playlist, which you can subscribe and listen to below: