To tell you the truth, Scott Miller is a bit of a contrarian. No matter the interview topic, he makes sure to get in little self-deprecating jabs.
Talk with the undeniably deep-thinking singer-songwriter about how he’s part of a long tradition of performers cutting their teeth in Knoxville, Tenn., and he’ll be sure to point out he had no particular plan in mind when he moved there two decades ago.
Ask how returning to his parents’ Virginia farm has been for his creativity, and he’ll note how much harder he’s made it for himself to get to Nashville, where he wrote and recorded his new album, Big Big World, with guitarist-producer Doug Lancio.
Miller used to hole up with his typewriter in a tree house in his Tennessee backyard to write songs. His method of co-writing with Lancio this time around was no more traditional and the results no more predictable.
CMT Edge: Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Doug Lancio was tinkering with song fragments in his studio while you were down the hall typing lyrics on a typewriter to what you overheard. I wondered, since you’ve mostly been a solo songwriter, if that was a way of tricking yourself into co-writing.
Miller: (laughs) Well, could be. The only other person I’ve really written with — well, two people — was Mic Harrison in the V-Roys. He and I could write together. We sort of had the same sensibilities and we trusted each other and we didn’t get offended if one of us went, “That sucks!” [The other was] Steve Earle.
Doug doesn’t want to mess with lyrics. He doesn’t give a shit what they say. And I’m no musician. I want this musical monkey off my back, ‘cause I’m not breaking any ground musically. So I thought this would be a good pairing. I was listening to him down the hall. I could hear what he was doing. It was like listening to my [older] sister’s albums, with her door closed.
As you were working on and testing out some of the songs that deal with emotions head-on, were you conscious of how unusual that was for you or for your audience to hear that from you?
The very first song on the record is “How Am I Gonna Be Me?” I wrote that as an exercise, sorta. I was like, “I’m never gonna show this to anybody, but I’m gonna pour this stuff out. Then maybe there will be a line or two that I can pinch and use somewhere else or something.” It was sort of nerve-wracking when Doug was like, “No, that’s awesome. We’re using that.” I was like, “No, no, no!”
You’ve joked that you set out to make an album that was both “adult” and “contemporary.” So what would you say is so age-appropriate about this album?
I call it spaghetti-making music. It’s like you put this album on and you boil your noodles and you can walk around the house. I wanted to make something vibe-y.
I think on my records before, I concentrated so much on songwriting that there are so many different styles — as many different styles as a white folk musician can have. It sort of jumps everywhere. I wanted something that would be nice and pleasant because I enjoy those records.
You close the album with a cover of the Country Gentlemen’s “Goin’ Home.” How far back do you go with that particular bluegrass song?
That’s a seminal song with me. That’s from a Country Gentlemen album called Joe’s Last Train from Rebel Records. I’ve had that album since I was probably in fourth grade. It’s one of those albums that’s always stuck with me. … It lasted through my folk phase, when I carried around books about Pete Seeger, and then I moved to Knoxville and joined a rock band and started getting high. One night, I dropped a needle on that and I was like, “Oh, this is still awesome!”
I believe five years is the longest you’ve ever gone without releasing a full-length album. You’ve weathered some significant life and career changes in recent years. How’d it all add up to that gap between albums?
Well, no secret that I got sober, and that took a little chunk of time. Even though I toured during that time and kept working, I wasn’t exactly [a ball of] creative energy there. Then the move home. Farming is a full-time job. I mean, it’s something I gotta do every day to take care of things. And now I’m 45. I don’t have the ideas I used to have when I was 25.
You mean the wealth of ideas or the kinds of ideas?
The wealth. That’s pretty embarrassing. It’s not a good work ethic, is it?
As you’ve said yourself, your life has been complicated by caring for cattle of late.
And [caring for my] folks. Those are my specialties now.
The word I’ve most often heard you use to describe growing up in the Shenandoah Valley is “isolated.” What has returning home offered you as an artist?
Not much. I thought, arrogantly enough, “Well, I can do this [music career] from anywhere if I did it from Knoxville. How hard can it be?” … My plan was to always go back to that farm, and I grew up there, so I didn’t fool myself as to how much time [farm work] took. I enjoy it so much, too. It’s like you’ve really gotta drag me off of there anymore.
You’ve followed your move back with Big Big World, whose title track talks about how much variety and diversity there is to experience out there. My hunch is the timing of the two wasn’t an accident.
Maybe not. I mean, the house I grew up in is on the album cover. Growing up so isolated — I bet people in other areas of the country could tell you the same thing — where we were in the valley, there was nothing but other farms around us. I can see, from the east to the west, the Shenandoah Valley from the Appalachians to the Blue Ridge. As a kid, you know, you’re 12, 13, and I just had this perspective: “This is mine.” You get a little Miller-centric because there’s nothing else around.