SCOTT MILLER’S SECOND CHANCE: Singer-songwriter opens up about music, art and battling his demons
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
It’s the smell of a detox ward that you can’t forget.
A miasma of bleach cleanser and old vomit and the liquor- and opiate-tainted sweat of patients past, it lingers in the mind. The names and faces of fellow patients fade, but there’s no forgetting that smell.
Singer-songwriter Scott Miller can recall it to this day. But he also recalls something else from the time he spent two years ago in Blount Memorial Hospital’s Emotional Health & Recovery Center, something that supersedes the shakes and tremors and nausea of the alcohol withdrawal: Laughter.
“At 9 p.m. every night, they’d serve what they called ‘Fourth Meal’ — baloney sandwiches and chocolate milk,” Miller recalled during a recent interview with The Daily Times. “The nurses would put the sandwiches out there, then retreat behind their glass windows, and we’d play board games. And until you’ve played Scattergories with a bunch of schizophrenics and drug addicts, you have not played. That’s the first time I started laughing. Just genuine, good laughter.”
It says a great deal about a man’s character that he finds the humor in an otherwise bleak situation. Then again, Miller — who brings his storytelling craft to the Clayton Center for the Arts on Tuesday night — has always been deft at combining humor and heartache. It’s a gift he possesses in abundance, and it’s made him one of the most beloved East Tennessee artists since the early 1990s. Even though he’s moved back to his home state of Virginia, he returns to this area regularly, as he’ll do next week, and his time in this area has shaped the man he is today.
He came to Knoxville in 1990 as a gangly, socially self-conscious farm boy with a head full of history and a knack for writing great songs. The irony doesn’t go unnoticed that when he went back to the Commonwealth more than a year ago, he’d pretty much come full circle.
“I spent four years playing at Hawkeye’s (Corner, a now-closed bar in Fort Sanders), and I didn’t drink at all,” Miller said. "I didn’t really start drinking until I was 24 or 25. I probably needed some sort of medication at that point. I have bouts with depression, and alcohol works — until it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, it’s a living hell. It’s just a paranoid, painful, tumultuous, out-of-control thing. But until it quit working, I used it fine and functioned fine.”
A graduate of the College of William and Mary with a degree in Russian literature, Miller penned songs in Knoxville that alternated between historical tales (“The Rain,” a first-person account of the Civil War Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, is haunting in its beauty and intensity) and heartfelt reflections of a lovable loser who sits at the bar and offers a running wise-ass commentary, never letting on that he keeps stealing glances at the girl in the back booth because she reminds him of the one who broke his heart years ago.
Around 1994, he co-founded a band called The Viceroys, which later became The V-Roys. With Mic Harrison, Jeff Bills and Paxton Sellers, Miller found himself catapulted onto the national stage, releasing two albums (“Just Add Ice” and “All About Town”) before tensions brought the project to an end on New Year’s Eve 1999. (The guys reconciled and played a reunion show last New Year’s Eve, however.)
Springboarding off the attention, Miller signed to Sugar Hill Records, releasing “Thus Always to Tyrants” in 2001 and embarking on a successful solo career that continues to this day. His isn’t a name you’ll find on Billboard charts (although it should be) or on Grammy ballots (again — should be), but he’s nurtured a dependable fanbase up and down the Eastern Seaboard that keeps him from having to work a 9-to-5 job, as long as you don’t count the work he does on the family farm back in Virginia.
He was what you’d call a functioning alcoholic. There are no stories of Scott Miller stumbling through a set, making long-time fans wince as he shouts belligerent slurs ... no arrests ... no string of cancellations or no-shows that would have let anyone outside of a close circle of family and friends realize that he had a problem. And at first, he wasn’t so sure it was actually a “problem,” he said.
“I spent a year or two, trying to quit and realizing I had a problem and dealing with it myself,” he said. “A lot of alcoholics do that; you can’t tell anybody who’s in the middle of it that they can’t do it alone. I finally realized it was a problem when I would try to quit, and I couldn’t. I’m a very textbook alcoholic, and I did everything we try to do. I tried to switch to beer ... to just drink on weekends ... to quit for a month. But it’s a progressive disease, and it comes back twice as hard as when you left it.”
The beginning of the end for his relationship with booze came in October 2010. He’d been on a three-week tour of the East Coast, from Boston to Pensacola, Fla.; a friend drove, and he spent most of the journey in the backseat, drunk. His first day back home, he went down to his favorite neighborhood bar in the Rocky Hill community of West Knoxville, and there had what those in sobriety call a moment of clarity.
“They had five screens worth of football, and a whole wall full of liquor, and I was like, ‘I’m in heaven,’ and I commenced to putting it on,” he said. “Halfway through that, I looked up at that wall, and I remember thinking: ‘I could drink every friggin’ drop on that wall. I could put it all down. But it’s not making me happy. It’s not killing what’s eating me anymore. It’s not working.”
He made the decision to quit, and camped out on the couch to sweat it out. Forty-eight hours later, he was on his way to Blount Memorial Hospital in Maryville.
“At that point, I was hearing ringing in my ears; my blood pressure had spiked; and I couldn’t see out of one eye,” he said. “At the hospital, they medically detoxed me.”
After several days at Blount Memorial’s Emotional Health & Recovery Center, he was released. Stripped of that chemical suit of armor that had anesthetized and comforted him for almost two decades, he set out to do what every recovering addict and alcoholic does — put one foot in front of the other, pray for a daily reprieve and work on the reasons that drove him to drink in the first place.
“It’s not even about drinking — it’s about how your brain works, and when you recover, you’ve got to re-train your brain,” he said. “You learn that everything you thought was green is not green — it’s blue! You’ve got to take your upbringing, how your brain is wired, and try to re-train it.”
In the two years since, he’s learned a couple of things about himself: One, that periods of depression seem to be his cross to bear: “There are demons I’ll have to battle, always,” he said. “That’s my handicap. My daily struggle.” Two, that contrary to the examples of men like Earnest Hemingway and Jim Morrison, emotional pain and copious consumption of chemicals aren’t necessary for one to work as an artist.
“The first year was the hardest thing in the world, because going on stage, you don’t have anything to calm your nerves, and you’re going up there naked,” he said. “But, I play better and sing better now. I used to think that I’d have to get to this nirvana place to inhabit a song and be able to play it, but that’s really far from the truth. I’m much better in my delivery and everything.
“When I started playing shows again, I remembered those Hawkeye’s shows, before I started drinking, when I could pick up on the vibe. The audience gives you vibes, and you give and you take. You can take a show and direct it where it needs to go, and you’re much more aware. When you’re blacked out, you’re just giving, and you’re expecting everybody to pick it up for you.
“Your art’s your art, and I don’t think you need to be in pain to make your art,” he added. “At worst, you’re masking it.”
And handicapping one’s ability to cope with life on life’s terms. Alcohol didn’t give him a free pass when it came to life’s challenges, Miller came to realize; it simply gave him a detour, but instead of going around the challenge, he found himself doubled back into the thick of it when he sobered up.
Take the past year, for example. He’s up early every day, taking care of cattle on the farm of his elderly parents. He’s released an EP (“CoDependents,” with fiddler Rayna Gellert) and is working on a new studio album with producer Doug Lancio, which he hopes to complete by the end of the year and release in the spring. (“My fans will hate it,” he joked. “It’s adult-contemporary — meaning it’s both adult, and contemporary. Musically, it’s not like anything I’ve done before.”) He’s had to change management.
“It’s been a tumultuous year,” he said. “I’ve got a plate full, and I couldn’t deal with it if I was still like I was.”
Alcohol, of course, hasn’t magically disappeared from his life. When he stops for gas on the drive from one town to the next, it’s in the cooler. When he plays the shows, it’s lining the shelves. When he buys for groceries, it’s sitting in the back. It doesn’t go away, and he can’t even say with absolute certainty that he’ll never drink again. He’s not planning on doing so, but he’s wise enough to understand that while today may be handled, tomorrow is an unwritten mystery filled with potential peril, heartache and misery.
That’s how life is — for everyone. But sometimes, he acknowledges, it goes the other way, too.
“When you get cleaned up, it’s not like your life turns into anything perfect — in fact, it turns into crap, because then you’re really dealing with the crap you’ve been avoiding,” he said. “Being sober, I have a better chance of being happy; at least I know the opportunity is there. It’s an unfulfilled opportunity, where before, it was never going to happen.”