The songs and albums of songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Scott Miller have always possessed a strong sense of place. Citation, Miller's third release with Sugar Hill Records, is no exception. It sports songs that emerge, breathing heavy, from the broken-in seats of the vehicle that gives the album its name (one interpretation of the title, anyway) and that roar down the highway, songs set... more
The songs and albums of songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Scott Miller have always possessed a strong sense of place. Citation, Miller's third release with Sugar Hill Records, is no exception. It sports songs that emerge, breathing heavy, from the broken-in seats of the vehicle that gives the album its name (one interpretation of the title, anyway) and that roar down the highway, songs set stateside and on battlefields, songs that seem to spring from the pages of historical biographies. And, perhaps ironically or perhaps fittingly, he had to go two different places to create the album. First was the Fort Sanders area of Knoxville, just west of downtown, where Miller rented an apartment to write songs for the album. And then he traveled to Memphis to work with legendary producer, musician, and character Jim Dickinson. _In the '70s, the Fort Sanders area had an active arts and music scene, but 30 years and short memories have conspired to steal the vibrancy. "Old mansions knocked down, burned up, and replaced with giant apartment buildings. The streets filled not by hillbilly hippies, but by rich kids with healthy hair, perfect teeth, their parent's SUVs, and their arms permanently bent up to their ears holding cell phones," is Miller's description. "By going back there, maybe I was looking for some kind of lost inspiration." The songs that Miller wrote while staying in the room that he dubbed "the Maid's Quarters" suggest that he found what he was looking for, be it courtesy of the ghost of one of those hillbilly hippies or of Miller making the time to tap into his rich experiences and boundless curiosity. "Freedom's a Stranger," jokingly dubbed "Summer of '89" by Miller, moves from Springsteen tapes in steamed-up cars to mortgages as a way to express the passing of time while trying to ward off the dousing of dreams. For "The Only Road," he accepted a chorus offered to him by Maid's Quarter visitor and former V-roys mate Mic Harrison and built a memorable, tragic tale around it. The lively "Say Ho" is about Sam Houston, who, as history and Virginia buff Miller is quick to point out, "was a Virginian, an East Tennessean, and then a Texan. Don't forget it."
With close to a record full of songs in his pocket it was time for Memphis, where Dickinson had chosen working with Miller over doing a Stephan Seagal blues record. (Sometimes you just have to let a statement like that speak for itself.) "I really went down there with an East Tennessee chip on my shoulder, ready to do battle and justify 'The State of Franklin,' which is what East Tennessee was for a short time," Miller says. For the most part, Miller hung close to the studio, and, as he did during his Fort Sanders stay, tried to draw inspiration from wherever he could get it. "I would stay in the studio and write, just sit there and drink beer," he recalls. "I'd hang out, and these guys would just come walking through. I met a ton of people." Among those passing by were Otis Redding's trumpet player, a gentleman who had survived the plane crash that took Redding's life, and Justin Timberlake. ("I swear to God, the guy emanates a light," Miller offers.) For added measure, Miller stayed in the same hotel that the Replacements stayed in when recording Pleased to Meet Me with Dickinson._The atmosphere clearly agreed with Miller as well as members of his kindred spirits, The Commonwealth. Bassist Jeremy Pennebaker, multi-instrumentalist Eric Fritsch, and drummer Shawn McWilliams constructed a wall of sound that could make one think that Beale Street had temporarily been replaced by E Street. The Commonwealthers roared through their parts during a whirlwind four-day stay, leaving rockers like "Only Everything," "8 Miles a Gallon," and "Jody" in their wake, not to mention a rowdy and timely cover of "Hawks & Doves," the title track of the 1980 album from Miller favorite Neil Young. "The only thing that Jim (Dickinson) said was 'It'd take me another two weeks to get y'all to slow down to a normal rate,'" laughs Miller. "You know, 'cos we're a live band, and we just came in and blistered through everything."
That exchange with Dickinson highlights the rapport that was established. The pair shared an appreciation of obscure folk records and, says Miller, "he was very impressed that I knew who Jerry Kennedy was." Miller continues, "He was demanding and as tough as you'd think he'd be, but I found a good kindred spirit there. He was a folk musician too; that's what he did. And he wrote obnoxious songs. He brought in some tapes of his stuff when he was younger, the same thing I'd do at Hawkeye's. If you can't run half the people out of the room, then your show's not going to be worth it, you know?"
Across the 11 songs on Citation--none, by the way, threats to run anybody out of the room--Miller is, as ever, hard to pin down. You can find him embracing pessimism and fate ("This is a train-ride start/You know where it's ending before you depart," from the lovely album-closing "Long Goodnight") and preaching optimism and hope ("If you're not going to make your dreams epic? Why bother to dream anything at all"). "Well, I am 'where' I am, I guess," he says. "And I try and write what I know." And, damn, if that's not the perfect place for Scott Miller.less