John R. Miller
John R Miller is a true hyphenate artist: singer-songwriter-picker. Every song on his thrilling debut solo album, Depreciated, is lush with intricate wordplay and haunting imagery, as well as being backed by a band that is on fire. One of his biggest long-time fans is roots music favorite Tyler Childers, who says he’s “a well-travelled wordsmith mapping out the world he’s seen, three chords at a time.” Miller is somehow able to transport us to a shadowy honkytonk and get existential all in the same line with his tightly written compositions. Miller’s own guitar-playing is on fine display here along with vocals that evoke the white-waters of the Potomac River rumbling below the high ridges of his native Shenandoah Valley.
Depreciated is a collection of eleven gems that take us to his homeplace even while exploring the way we can’t go home again, no matter how much we might ache for it. On the album, Miller says he was eager to combine elements of country, folk, blues, and rock to make his own sound. Recently lost heroes like Prine, Walker, and Shaver served as guideposts for the songcrafting but Miller has completely achieved his own sound. The album is almost novelistic in its journey, not only to the complicated relationship Miller has with the Shenandoah Valley but also into the mind of someone going through transitions. “I wrote most of these songs after finding myself single and without a band for the first time in a long while,” Miller says. “I stumbled to Nashville and started to figure things out, so a lot of these have the feel of closing a chapter.”
Miller grew up in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia near the Potomac River. “There are three or four little towns I know well that make up the region,” he says, name-checking places like Martinsburg, Shepherdstown, Hedgesville, and Keyes Gap. “It’s a haunted place. In some ways it’s frozen in time. So much old stuff has lingered there, and its history is still very present.” As much as Miller loves where he’s from, he’s always had a complicated relationship with home and never could figure out what to do with himself there. “I just wanted to make music, and there’s no real infrastructure for that there. We had to travel to play regularly and as teenagers most of our gigs were spent playing in old church halls or Ruritan Clubs.” He was raised “kinda sorta Catholic” and although he gave up on that as a teenager, he says “it follows me everywhere, still.”
His family was not musical — his father worked odd jobs and was a paramedic before Miller was born, while his mother was a nurse — but he was drawn to music at an early age, which was essential to him since he says school was “an exercise in patience” for him. “Music was the first thing to turn my brain on. I’d sit by the stereo for hours with a blank audio cassette waiting to record songs I liked,” he says. “I was into a lot of whatever was on the radio until I was in middle school and started finding out about punk music, which is what I gravitated toward and tried to play through high school.” Not long after a short and aimless attempt at college, I was introduced to old time and traditional fiddle music, particularly around West Virginia, and my whole musical world started to open up.” Around the same time he discovered John Prine and says the music of Steve Earle sent him “down a rabbit hole.” From there he found the 1970s Texas gods like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver, and Blaze Foley, the swamp pop of Bobby Charles, and the Tulsa Sound of J.J. Cale, who is probably his biggest influence.
As much as the music buoyed him, it also took its toll. “I always prioritized being a touring musician above everything, and my attempts at relationships suffered for it,” he says. Miller was also often fighting depression and watching many of his friends “go off the rails on occasion.” He says that for a long period he did a lot of self-medicating. “I used to go about it by drinking vodka from morning to night for months on end,” he says. “I shouldn’t have made it this far. I’m lucky, I think.” Ultimately, the music won out and Depreciated is the hard-won result of years of self-education provided by life experiences that included arrests, a drunken knife-throwing incident, relationships both lost and long-term, and learning from the best of the singer-songwriters by listening.
For the creation of the album Miller joined forces with two producers who shared his vision for a country-blues infused record: multiple Grammy nominee Justin Francis, who has worked with everyone from Leon Bridges to Kacey Musgraves, and Adam Meisterhans, a renowned guitarist whom Miller has known since their days as roustabout musicians in West Virginia. They recorded Depreciated in the legendary Studio A of Sound Emporium in Nashville. Miller says the studio’s “killer gear and lived-in feeling” enhanced the sound but most importantly it provided plenty of space for the band to be together. “It’s important to me to have a relationship with the people I’m working with,” Miller says. The crew is a well-oiled machine that is given the opportunity to shine throughout the album: Meisterhans adding guitar along with Miller, Francis bringing in congas and Wurlitzer, Chloe Edmonstone offering a plaintive fiddle, John Looney on mandolin, Jonathan Beam providing bass, Russ Pahl’s shimmery pedal steel, John Clay on drums, and Robbie Crowell playing the Wurlie and Hammond B3.
We’re driven into Miller’s world by steady drums, a thudding bass, and steering electric guitar in “Lookin’ Over My Shoulder,” a song that perfectly captures going back to your old haunts after a breakup. Right away the many layers — sonic and thematic — are revealed as we continue on into “Borrowed Time,” a song that feels like a smoky bar-room but is also Miller at his most profound, pondering about “listening to that eternal engine whine.” Its ghostly electric guitar and percussion begs for two-steppers. More variety kicks in with “Faustina,” a lovely prayer to the most recent saint that shows Miller in seeker mode. “Shenandoah Shakedown” is a four-minute epic with its river that “speaks in tongues” and a “sky frozen black” but also intimate in its exploration of a relationship crumbling. “Coming Down” is perhaps the thematic heart of the album, asking “Don’t you wish you could go back home?” and exploring that question in elegiac tones with stand-out harmonies between Miller and Edmonstone. The breakup is further explored in the deceptively lively “Old Dance Floor,” which is answered in the keep-your-head-up anthem of “Motor’s Fried” before the intricate character study of a woman who “grew up too fast in the moonlight” in “Back and Forth,” which features memorable turns on the fiddle and mandolin. There’s the calming instrumental track “What’s Left of the Valley” that is an elegy for a region, an ode to searching for used cars called “Half Ton Van,” and finally, the melodic mastery of “Fire Dancer,” which may be the most complex and psychedelically-influenced track on the album that allows the album to land on a place of self-acceptance, with a narrator ready to go forward stronger and wiser.
The eleven songs, all penned by Miller, provide an album that stands strong as an entity but also provides tight singles that announce a major new voice. Miller possesses a rich voice, a flair for leading a band, and perhaps most of all, a startling ability for songwriting that results in Depreciated being an album that will have widespread appeal. Miller has achieved that most difficult yet most important thing: presenting the universal in the specific, paying attention to the cool beneath the pines along the rivers of the Shenandoah Valley while also pulling the camera back to reveal the longings that unite us all. — Silas House