Jerry Miller’s multifaceted New Road Under My Wheels shakes and quakes with breakneck speed. The razor-sharp guitarist’s instrumentals such as “Travis Express” frequently shine brightest. Miller debuted his buoyant new collection at North Carolina’s MerleFest last month.
“MerleFest was great!” the current Indiana resident says. “I had never attended it, and we had a really great time. We got to hang with the Kruger Brothers. We do Shakori Hills [Grassroots Festival], which is also in North Carolina, and that’s one of my favorites, but MerleFest was something else. I’m a real big Doc Watson fan.”
CMT Edge: How did the new album come together?
Miller: It took a few years to get to it in between our touring schedule and other distractions, but I had the opportunity to do it. I made the decision to not have it be all instrumental, and so I got my favorite guest vocalists in the Boston area, which is where I was based at the time, to help. There are four original instrumentals, but the rest have my favorite people I’ve played with over the years.
Tell the story behind writing “Travis Express.”
I wanted an instrumental with that type of feel and that was primarily fingerpicking. It was totally inspired by Merle Travis, which you can hear if you’re at all familiar with Merle, though not by any particular piece of his. I just wanted to do fingerpicking like he might just to pay tribute to him. He was one of my favorite guitar players and influences. That’s a difficult one to play. (laughs)
What exactly makes it difficult?
Just the tempo. The rhythm section likes to do that at a very high rate of speed. (laughs) I’m happy with how it turned out, though.
How do you make an instrumental tell a story?
I have a basic concept for each instrumental. I have a sonic image in my head and just develop from there. As far as telling a story, I’m not sure, but I do want to set a mood with each one. Each one I could describe to you where I was coming from, or I could say I’m doing this for this reason or the style of music.
Tell the story behind “Slaughter on Roosevelt Boulevard.”
Initially, I was trying to do that like a Freddie King instrumental. That’s where that started out, but when we started playing it, it morphed into a more surf song with an ominous feel to it. The title actually goes back years and years to a song I wrote in the late 1960s. I reused the title because I thought it fit that song.
How does this album represent your evolution as a player?
I feel that once it was done, it did represent pretty much what I sound like. There’s some Western swing and an almost retro tone on a couple things. I do feel that it was a cohesive sound, and you could listen to it and know what I sound like.
Do you consider your music a particular genre, or is it just what you play?
It is pretty much just what I play, but my influences go even way wider than you might gather from listening to this. Leon Rhodes. Fingerpicking guys like Chet [Atkins] and Merle. Also, rock guys like Link Wray and Duane Eddy. Those are pretty much my influences. Also, Keith Richards and George Harrison, Cliff Gallup. I feel that you could probably gather that by listening to it, but as a style, I’m not exactly sure. “Eclectic” is an overused term, but it might work.
What specifically makes your Gretsch guitar a good fit for you?
The Gretsch has a bunch of great sounds, and you can get a real twangy thing out of it. Also, a fairly well-known Tele player described it as having a pretty sound. If you think of the main Gretsch players like Chet Atkins, who had this beautiful tone, which is partly his own playing ability, but you can get a really great straight rock tone out of it. The guy in the Stray Cats is another famous Gretsch player. You can get this beautiful, clear, bell-like tone out of it. It’s been my main guitar for years.
Describe the way you feel when you play the guitar.
When I play, especially live, I try not to think or overthink it. I play as intuitively as I can. I’m really bad at playing the same thing. I’ll play something, and if I try to play it again like that, I don’t remember what I did. I totally envy someone who can just make up a great part and play it every time, but for whatever reason, that was never my talent. I just don’t think about anything and play whatever happens to sound good. It also depends on the room and what kind of tone I’m getting.
Intuition’s a key for most great guitarists, don’t you think?
Yeah, I think so. There are definitely guys who played with heart and nailed it, and then there are other people like Hubert Sumlin. You get the impression that he didn’t think about anything. (laughs) He just played off the top of his head. That’s the way to describe it: Just play off the top of your head.
How did you find “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”?
I heard that many years ago. A friend and I were listening to Billie Holiday, and he happened to have that. Then I was playing with another singer around Boston, and she did it, and I learned it to play with her and developed the thing I do. Eilen [Jewell] is a total Billie Holiday fan, so I thought I’d get her to sing at the end of that, and I think she does an unbelievably great job.
Describe working with Eilen.
It’s great. She’s one of the best people writing songs today. Every single tune she writes, I love. Every tune that we do with her, I love and think is great. It’s totally fun to play. She allows me to play whatever I want. (laughs) She likes the fact that I have all these different influences and doesn’t restrict me. It’s been a great thing for me as far as notoriety since playing with her. She’s my favorite songwriter and I’m totally impartial. (laughs)