John R. Miller is an unassuming type of guy. That’s evident both in the way he makes music and through his decidedly down-home demeanor.
Both those traits can be traced to his background. Raised in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, he’s taken his rural, rugged and rustic sound across the U.S. and Canada as well as overseas to Europe, England, Ireland and Japan. Nevertheless, for all his worldly travels, his songs still find him firmly anchored to his Appalachian roots.
It’s not that Miller is a traditionalist by any means — he cites such influences as the Descendents, the Replacements and Creedence Clearwater Revival, all bands with a decidedly rebellious spirit — but he admits that his early environs helped spark a sense of determination and self-reliance that have remained with him ever since.
“Appalachia is a large and diverse region with a whole lot of creative people in it,” Miller said when asked what fuels his drive and delivery. “There’s a palpable spirit of independence there. While playing in bands when I was young, we always figured no one was going to help us, so we just did it ourselves. We’d put on indie shows in whatever local building would allow teenagers to rent a space for a reasonable rate, and never looked back.”
That work ethic aside, Miller can’t be confined to any one particular style or stereotype.
“It would be disingenuous of me to claim ‘Appalachian’ as a way to define the aesthetic characteristics of the music I make,” he said. “I do love the traditional fiddle and old-time music of West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and so forth, and it’s certainly been a large part of my life over the years. I picked up the guitar and started writing songs at 14, which thankfully was still in the days of dial-up modems. Then when I was 18, I heard John Prine for the first time, and like many others, it sort of course-corrected me.”
Miller was in his late teens when he became enamored by the wayward existence fancied by most traveling troubadours. He cites a band called Lucero as one of his early favorites and said he admired their gumption, even when their audiences were minimal. Looking back, he said that it was that fervor and perseverance that first excited and inspired him.
“That lifestyle all of a sudden seemed real and tangible to me,” he said. “I’m 33 now, but at 18 and 19, I was deeply romantic about it, which seems a little silly now that I know how crushing it can be at times. But without that initial romanticism, I never would have put wheels on the road.”
Miller said that by the time he was 19, he had fully committed himself to a life of making music. By his own admission, he was “drinking my way directly out of my third semester of college and going to more shows than I was classes.” He subsequently dropped out, started playing some shows and eventually hooked up with some buddies in a string band. They then began busking on the streets of Washington, D.C., and the New York City subways with a mix of fiddle tunes and their original material. Later he achieved a modicum of cult success with indie bands The Fox Hunt and Prison Book Club before opting to go out on his own.
“I’m always learning,” he said. “Road experience teaches you humility if you let it. It’s very important and gives you things to write about, especially in the beginning. Ideally you learn how to get along with people, as well as what the expectations are.”
As a result, he admits he was hesitant to start playing solo.
“Honestly, I wasn’t crazy about it,” he said. “It was sort of something that just happened out of necessity when I found myself between bands. I was still writing, and had to keep going out and playing my songs. I’ve just never really known what else to do; my skill set is embarrassingly limited. Fortunately, now I am no longer on my own, even though we play under my name. I have a really great group of people I get to play with, who sometimes rotate in and out, and it keeps things moving and progressing and enjoyable.”
Now based about a half-hour northwest of Nashville, Miller described his progress up until now as “meandering, with occasional run-ins with good fortune.” He’s been featured on NPR’s program “Mountain Stage” and has released two albums to date, 2014‘s “Service Engine” and “The Trouble You Follow,” which came four years later. He hopes to have a new effort ready next year.
“I’ve never been very comfortable writing from other perspectives,” Miller said of the subject matter. “There isn’t a narrative arc or anything to the album, but there are little stories throughout. A lot of it was written during a pretty tumultuous and aimless period, and so it felt like closing a difficult chapter.”
For now however, Miller and his band The Engine Lights have a full slate of shows lined up for the future. While it’s clear he remains committed to his craft, he can also be honest and open about the sacrifices that impede on the process.
“It’s always seemed like a pretty selfish lifestyle,” Miller said of his touring. “You lose a lot of friends if you don’t make a concerted effort to keep in touch. You grow distant from people you used to know intimately. It’s hard to keep a healthy routine. But I’m working on that. I still love traveling, but as the romanticism fades and the occupational aspect takes over, I realize that while I’m very fortunate in some ways, I’ve trapped myself in others.”
Even so, Miller also indicates he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“All of that seems irrelevant when you reach someone through music,” he said. “There’s nothing more gratifying about this life than finding you’ve created something that’s touched somebody, and made a connection out of thin air. I know I’m bordering on a platitude at this point, but it’s real life magic.”