Crisscrossing the Southeast, stopping to pay West Virginia tolls and trying to get to the next venue on time, singer-songwriter and Knoxville expatriate Scott Miller is a weary-sounding man.
It’s understandable, given his dual roles as a working musician and a cattle farmer, trying to eke out a living in Virginia’s picturesque Shenandoah Valley during a trade dispute that has all but halted beef exports from the United States. Prices are down, but the market won’t wait, which means there’s always a part of his brain occupied by farm life, even as he plays for the folks who wonder when he’ll get around to making another record.
He wants to make one as badly as they want to hear one, he told The Daily Times recently. But the demands of his life keep pushing that goal further and further onto the backburner, and at the end of the day, when it comes time to kick off boots caked with mud and manure and wash the hay from his hair and collapse into bed for a few hours of sleep before he does it all over again, he feels the muse urging him to pick up his guitar.
“On one hand, I don’t have the time between (caring for his elderly) parents and the farm and touring to make a living,” Miller told The Daily Times recently. “I don’t’ have the time to really concentrate on writing that I’d like. Of course, the argument can be made that I don’t make the time, but I’ve got to make a living. You’ve got to have songs, and you need more than you think you need.
“I’ll get back to it eventually, as soon as I can get myself organized. I’ve got ideas and notes; I’ve just got to make time to sit down and finish it and be pleased with it and not just finish it to finish it.”
Things are looking up, however, as much as they can be for a cattle farmer who made his bones playing the long-gone Hawkeye’s Corner in Knoxville’s Fort Sanders neighborhood. That was shortly after he drifted down to East Tennessee from Virginia in the early 1990s, before joining a band called The Viceroys, which would change its name to The V-Roys and enjoy a modest amount of national exposure and a heaping helping of local stardom before calling it quits in 1999.
Miller went on to a successful career as a singer-songwriter, cutting records for the Sugar Hill label and performing regularly around the country, solo and with his band the Commonwealth (and, in recent years, the Commonwealth Ladies Auxiliary, which gave its name to his most recent album, 2017’s “Ladies Auxiliary,” so named because it was made with the assistance of female peers.
In 2011, however, the declining health of his elderly parents necessitated a move back to Virginia, where he took over running the family’s cattle farm and caring for his mother and father.
“In July, we moved my dad to a facility on the other side of the county, about 40 minutes away, which in some ways is good, but now I’m driving 40 minutes one way every day,” he said. “But mom and dad’s farmhouse is really mine now, so we’re (Miller and his wife, Thea) are making plans on how to move there. I’d like to set up a studio in my old bedroom. There might be some angst still in there, and hopefully I can tap into that.”
Life on the farm is serious business, but Miller maintains his droll sense of humor. That wit translates well to some of his better-known songs, like “Made a Mess of This Town,” but on the flip side of that, he’s got a keen eye for tenderness that makes tracks like “Daddy Raised a Boy,” “Freedom’s a Stranger” and “How Am I Ever Gonna Be Me?” poignant ruminations on the fragility of life, the power of memory and the restless discomfort of a human shell that never seems to fit right.
Talking about it, though, is akin to prying pearls from an oyster. He’s not given to existential musings on the nature of art or the deeper meanings behind his songs. In a way, that makes them more intimate to the listener: Whether they apply such to their interpretation of Miller’s meaning or see a reflection of themselves within the lyrics, they always come away from a live show with a mental souvenir.
“When you’re out there every night, playing and doing your thing, that’s where I shine. That’s my comfortable spot — besides the farm, it’s behind a microphone,” he said. “But to support that, you’ve got to write. I just don’t have the time, and I don’t know how I could make more time to do that, but I need to.”
Not that record sales or songwriting royalties or record streams pay the bills anymore. The only way music makes him money, he added, is through merchandise sales: “If you really want to support your top-of-the-middle or middle-of-the-middle struggling musicians, buy a hat! And I’m not bragging, but I’ve got good hats!”
And, for the first time, he’s got vinyl: His first two Sugar Hill records, “Thus Always to Tyrants” and “Upside/Downside,” were recently released in that particular format. In light of his lack of time for writing new material, he jokes that it may be time for a “Scott Miller retrospective boxed set,” and when the subject of a potential V-Roys reunion is broached — the guys got together once in 2011 — he laughs.
“Hey, I can be bought!” he said. “But at this point, I just don’t know where we’d find the time, if there was any interest at all. All my time, all my effort, is on the farm and my parents. That’s why I moved home.”
And, he added, there are always other options to bring in extra income.
“I keep threatening to drive a school bus,” he said. “I think I’d love it, man! One, they’re desperate, so the county is giving bus drivers benefits, but two, I loved my bus driver. They’re the first person a kid sees in the morning and the last in the evening, so you can make an impact on somebody’s life doing that.
“I joke, of course, because I would still need to be able to tour, but I’m open to suggestions. I play music for a living, and I farm for a living, but if anybody’s got an idea for a third job, I’m all ears.”