By his own estimation, singer-songwriter Scott Miller has played the historic Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville almost a dozen times in one capacity or another.
With his almost-famous Knoxville alt-country rock quartet The V-Roys, and continuing with a solo career after the band broke up on New Year’s Eve 1999, he’s opened for artists, who, while technically “bigger” that Miller himself, often fall short of the adoration he receives as one of East Tennessee’s favorite musical sons. Even after moving back to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where he was born and raised, in 2011, he’s returned to Knoxville annually — as he’ll do on Friday night — for a headline show of his own.
Never before, he told The Daily Times recently, has he looked around the old theater, a place that he knows as well as the long-gone venue Hawkeye’s where he made his bones in the local music scene, and wondered if it might be the last time he steps onto that stage.
“I have a feeling it could be the last,” Miller said, referencing both his Friday show and his new album, “Ladies Auxiliary,” due out Nov. 3. “It sort of doesn’t really matter what this album does; I’m going to have to spend more time at home with the folks, and that means I can’t tour like I used to. I can’t let the farm suffer, and I can’t let my folks suffer; there can’t be a sacrifice there. The other option is the music end.”
For those whose have set their watches by Miller’s music over the past two decades, that’s undoubtedly cause for some existential anguish.
His career started with The V-Roys, which in 2009 topped the Best Knoxville Band poll in the old alternative weekly paper Metro Pulse. Over the span of two albums (and a live record), the band made a name for itself playing hard-driving country-rock that practically begged audience members to sing along, often while hoisting a cold one. When the band broke up in 1999, Miller pursued a solo career, putting together a backing band known as the Commonwealth and releasing several studio albums and slowly growing a fanbase nationwide.
As a solo artist, Miller draws upon his love of history (it was his major, along with Russian literature, at the College of William and Mary) and his self-deprecating sense of humor for a catalog of songs that are wryly observational on one end of the spectrum and beautifully melancholy on the other. His new album is no different “Jacki With an I” is a bluesy country waltz about a girl with “hair that’s teased so much that it might bite,” an ode to a date to the county fair that leaves a skinny Virginia boy tongue-tied and knock-kneed. It’s a song that stands in stark contrast to the sweeping “Epic Love,” built on the great Greek love stories of Persephone and Hades and Odysseus and Penelope, among others.
There’s a reimagined version of “Lo Siento Spanishburg W. Va.,” about the gentrification of a small town; “Mother-In-Law,” a fun jump blues number about a woman who “smells like a biker and ... cackles like a jackal; and “Someday Sometime,” a gentle rumination on life itself, particularly on the other side of sobriety, which Miller found in 2010: “Sometimes you’re called upon to help, sometimes you have to help yourself.”
There’s been a lot more helping himself these days, especially when it comes to music. He moved back to Virginia in 2011 to run the family cattle farm, and on a recent September afternoon, he’s taking a break from building a fence to talk to The Daily Times. He played no shows that month, he said, and he’s “got the bank account to prove it.” At the same time he laments the changing nature of the music business, however, he stops to admire a bald eagle landing in a field near the farmhouse. Miller shares a lot of traits with that bird — not that he drapes himself in an American flag and sings covers of treacly Lee Greenwood patriotic numbers, but in the fact that he’s often soaring solo these days, making his way through the wilderness of the music business as best he can.
“It’s been three or four years since I did the last record, and I can see the difference,” he said. “I’m not going down to Nashville and shucking and jiving and doing the stuff you’ve got to do. I just don’t have the social skills for that (stuff); I never did. For a guy who got into the music business, I’ve got the worse social skills and social anxiety of anybody.”
That all changes when he takes the stage, however. He channels his social quirks into affability, and whether he’s playing with his old V-Roys bandmates or the guys in the Commonwealth or his newest band, the Commonwealth Ladies Auxiliary — made up mostly of the ladies who helped craft his new album — he finds the right balance of musical nuance to make the assembled crowds laugh, cry, shout and cease conversations altogether, so enthralled are they by a song like “The Rain,” a harrowing tale of the Civil War battle at Spotsylvania Courthouse.
As poignant as such a song is, however, they’re harder to come by these days, he said.
“It’s not like when you’re younger and that (stuff) is just pouring out of you,” he said. “As you get older, you have to start working. Inspiration is one thing, but it takes a pro to finish a song and make it seem like it’s inspiration. It’s like Steve Earle used to tell us — everybody’s got one good verse and one good chorus in them, but it’s what you do with the rest of it that matters.”
And the work with songs, he pointed out, don’t pay the bills like it used to. He’s done fine as an independent artist, but he had to grind out a living; balancing touring with raising cattle, however, is a virtually impossible task, and now he faces the possibility of hanging up the guitar, at least as a way to make a living, for good. In the time since our interview, he’s lost his mother-in-law, and his father suffered a stroke in late September. If he was on the fence about hanging it up before, he’s almost all the way over the other side now.
“I wish I’d written something a little more solid to be my swan song,” he said. “I wanted to make a record that sounds the same consistently all the way through, but every time I tried, it would end up being part rock, part singer-songwriter, there would be the bluegrass in there ... the sounds would jump around, and I was hoping it was the songs that glued it together. That was my goal with the last one, to make it sound consistent, and it did, but it wasn’t my best writing. These are better songs.”
And he’s not ready to officially call it quits; since the recording of “Ladies Auxiliary,” he’s written two new songs he’s rather proud of, but whatever may come of them and others that follow, it’s doubtful he’ll mount a national campaign. And so he finds himself wondering, in typical Scott Miller fashion — half-joking, half-not — what other possibilities are out there to supplement his cattle operation.
“I don’t know what else to do; I thought about driving a school bus, but I hate kids,” he cracked. “My parents are in their upper 80s, so they go to funerals all the time; maybe I can work at a funeral home and park cars. I clean up good!
“I keep wondering, what job can I get to make up that income that leaves me time to farm and take care of my folks? Musically I’m at that level where I’ve got to keep putting something out and go work it, and that’s a fine life. I enjoyed it when I had that time, but duty calls.”