Fans of songwriter/performer Scott Miller might assume that "Big Big World" — the title of his new CD — refers to the 200-acre cattle farm Miller grew up on and now works in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
And Miller's "big big world" recently stretched to include a rented writing space in Knoxville — a dingy basement apartment with a window looking out into a parking lot in the back of a convenience store — as well as the city block between the Nashville apartment of friend Patty Griffin to producer Doug Lancio's Studio G! in East Nashville, where most of the work for Miller's latest project was done.
But after listening to "Big Big World," true Miller aficionados will realize that the phrase points to the artist's new musical horizons, which have stretched beyond the sphere of any of his previous work.
Miller will bring material from his "Big Big World" to the Twilight Alive summer concert series in downtown Kingsport on May 30. Show time is 7:30 p.m. on Broad Street. Admission is free.
"Big Big World" was recorded, mixed and produced by Doug Lancio, with Lancio and Miller playing the parts of what would normally have been Miller's backing band, The Commonwealth.
Miller and Lancio met back in 2007 when Miller opened for Patty Griffin's "Children Running Through" tour while Lancio was bandleader and playing guitar for Griffin. Miller and Lancio struck up a friendship and started working on Miller's 2009 release "For Crying Out Loud," but when Lancio took a gig playing guitar for John Hiatt, the record was finished with producer/keyboardist Michael Webb.
Miller wrote "Big Big World" to bits and pieces of music that Lancio recorded when he wasn't touring with Hiatt, and when Miller wasn't out on the road himself. For two working musicians, this was no easy task.
"When we could get our schedules to match we would work at forging both kinds of music: adult and contemporary," Miller pointed out.
Over the course of a year, the two would get together in Nashville: Lancio in the studio and Miller across the street in the empty condo owned by Patty Griffin.
"There was no TV and no Internet since Patty wasn't using it much, so it was a sensory deprivation chamber," Miller explained. "I don't do well alone with my thoughts, so I set up a typewriter in an office in Doug's studio and wrote to what I heard him working on down the hall."
As a result, "Big Big World" is a 10-song offering that melds Miller and Lancio's respective gifts of words and music. Highlights include the pulsating title track "Big Big World" and the straight-from-the-shoulder "How Am I Ever Gonna Be Me?" that Miller brought to the project already written. Their mutual influences of southern rock, country and bluegrass can be heard on "I Gave You the Power" and "Why Won't You Give Me Your Love?" while interpretations of Tuareg music from the southern Sahara can be discovered on "Freight Train Heart/Stone Wall Love" and "You Got Love."
There's even a wink and a nod to the sound of '70s songwriters like Neil Young or Terry Jacks ("Heavy on My Mind"). Finish it off with a cover of The Country Gentlemen's "Goin' Home" — backed up by Knoxville's Black Lillies — and "Big Big World" wraps right back around to East Tennessee, where Miller started all those years ago.
Each song comes with its history, its own story.
"Some songs I just write and don't think about while I'm doing it. Sometimes I think as I write 'I shouldn't be writing this' or 'I won't ever let anyone hear this, I'll just make this an exercise' — and 'How Am I Ever Gonna Be Me' is one of those songs," said Miller. "I wrote that song the summer before I hit what some people call 'bottom,' but I like to think of as my 'moment of clarity.'
"We all wear different hats, that's part of life, but for some it becomes overwhelming, especially if you don't have any kind of foundation, spiritual or otherwise," Miller explained. "This song is just talking about it. Maybe whining about it, too."
"Freight Train Heart/Stone Wall Love" is also a cornerstone moment on the project.
"This song represents the entire record to me," said Miller. "So much of the writing on this record is wordplay, which I truly enjoy but I worried that it didn't mean anything. So the first version of this song had so many words and the melody I sang had so many notes. But we took the time so that I could listen back and hear what worked and what didn't.
"A few days before we finished up I wrote these three verses to that very simple melody. And it turns out it does say something to me," Miller finished, with a final, "So there."
Ever since Steve Earle declared Miller a "world class" songwriter — signing him and his former band The V-Roys to his record label E-Squared and producing their two bedrock Americana albums "Just Add Ice" and "All About Town" with Twangtrust partner Ray Kennedy — Miller has been known as a writer's writer. Even on the next four albums Miller recorded and released on Sugar Hill Records from 2001 to 2008, Miller's songwriting remained genuinely thoughtful, for the most part regional and history based — but always cloaked in what one New York Times reviewer called an "epic vernacular." In other words, he wrote big.
The last two years have seen big changes for the malapert Miller.
"Like many with elderly parents I heard the call: Now is the time for all sons to return to the land of their raising, smother their parents with a pillow and collect their social security," Miller deadpanned.
Moving home to take over the family cattle farm and establishing a new base from which to tour in Staunton, Va. — all while embracing a new life of sobriety — has been challenging and time consuming.
"Most of my touring the last couple of years has been in spurts, not like I used to do. I can't leave my cows for that long. I need their guidance."comments powered by Disqus