Interview: Jim Miller (Western Centuries)

Americana musician of long standing Jim Miller is breaking new ground with fellow creative minds Cahalen Morrison, Ethan Lawton and other members of Western Centuries as they bring a new and exciting, and slightly experimental sound to the table. “Weight of the World”, the band’s debut has been met with much praise, so much so people are already marking it down as one of the best of 2017. Maurice Hope spoke to Jim Miller.

Jim, you have been involved in some great recordings over the years? Dirk Powell’s “If You Go Ten Thousand Miles” for instance on Rounder – what a tremendous piece of work.
I think I did three with him. You do forget.

He never does anything bad.
The funny thing about recording is once you have done it it’s over. You can’t go back, and then if it is released it is out there. It is so funny. People get most nervous about the process. It holds people back from putting more music in. It’s so funny. I have never really had that problem. You go for it, do your best, and you are on to the next thing.

How did you get to know Dirk Powell and become involved in the record (Jim Miller played great guitar too, but his vocals alone put this record a notch above most old time recordings; taken from Tim O’Brien’s liner notes)?
We were friends. He was, I think, still in high school and I was living in Philadelphia at the time and he had taken some kind of break. He ended up staying at the same house I was, and we started playing. He was actually trained as a harpsichord player, and somehow he discovered old-time music. Then he migrated to where I was, and we hung out and played together a lot. He was very young. He was still in his teens for sure, and then we made a record. I bet this is one you don’t have it is called The Wandering Ramblers. I believe it was his first recording. He played fiddle and I played guitar, John Herrman on banjo and Meredith McIntosh on bass. And there was Carol Elizabeth Jones (vocals). It was a freaking great recording and it never got to CD. I think it might only be in tape form. Somebody has digitalised it. Yes, Sammy Lind has it on his computer. Wandering Ramblers muses Miller, boy that was really fun doing that. It was a one off. We never did anything with that.

Dirk is well steeped in traditional Appalachian music, and Cajun too. He was of course once married to Christine Balfa?
His most recent thing is in the band with Rhiannon Giddens. He does a lot of different stuff, and I just saw them. I live over in New York State and saw them in a club here. They were very diverse. They did French Canadian, Cajun and everything you could imagine, and there are some songs they have written. Dirk’s music is pretty broad. Plus, he is in Joan Baez’s band and has now been with her for over ten years, it kind of keeps him in the folk centre. I think he is also on Eric Clapton’s new record. He gets around way more than I do that’s for sure.

He has his recording studio in Breaux Bridge?
Yeah, I recorded there. I recorded there with Ginny Hawker (Virginia-based country, old time gospel singer) and Dirk was the producer. I have sung quite a bit with her.

Talking of diverse but still traditional you also sing a couple of gospel songs on ‘If I Go Ten Thousand Miles’?
Yeah. I think, personally, I have drifted away from that. A lot of times old time music is funny. I am not from that world, and Dirk really isn’t either. I have a hard time relating to the songs a lot of the time. The words and the message don’t fit with me. I can’t buy into a song about mules and chickens and everything. It is not my world at all. For me to find a song that I can believe in and sing is hard in old time music hence I don’t do much of I anymore. I don’t find that much in it, that speaks to me.

A person’s interest can only go so far before it gets too pure?
Yes, it gets so pure. I never did like the pure. I was never into that at all. Also, the messages are from a different era, and I just can’t do it. I can only sing a song I believe in.

Today it is an entirely different world. It is far more complicated?
If I can’t get behind the message of the song I can’t do it. If it is a love song that has a slightly timeless message that I can do. There, you don’t have to be in a certain time frame.

Quite a few songs from the Carter Family are like that. Timeless?
Yeah, they really are. Even if you are singing about going down the river in your canoe that even gets hard, but with a few of their songs there is certain timeless feel to it. That is what I can still sing in the traditional genre, but generally I have kind of drifted away from it. I am really enjoying writing now, and being with the band Western Centuries because we are trying to create something different. That I like!

Having three lead vocalists is certainly different?
Yeah, it is really different. It’s challenging, and we learn from each other. We are in a growing process and with every gig we are learning a little more.

How did you all meet up?
My wife was in graduate school, in Seattle, but I did not know those guys. So with her studying there we went to live there for three years. I believe I met them the first week we were there. I went to a music party. A jamming party at someone’s house and there they were, and we started right in. I have since moved to New York and we are still at it. Tomorrow we are off touring again. Off to New Mexico and Colorado, playing in Taos, Santa Fee and where they invented the bomb, Roswell. The last one is the Pagoda Folk n Bluegrass Festival near to the New Mexico border.

Cahalen grew up in New Mexico so it’s fun for him to go back there. It is like in his backyard. His family still live in Northern New Mexico, and I think our last gig is the Festival in Southern New Mexico close to his house. His parents live pretty much off the beaten track up in the mountains, it’s so beautiful. It is a hand built house, his dad cut the wood, and built the house with his own hands. It is pretty amazing. It’s an interesting part of the world, and the food is great!

Where were you actually born?
I was born in Boston, and grew up in Saskatchewan in Canada on the prairies. I stayed there till high school then my parents moved to Connecticut. I have lived all over, but my formative years were in Saskatchewan.

What were your first musical experiences?
The first I did when I was five years old was I joined a boy’s choir. They were actually a touring group. So at five years old I toured with them. They did Broadway songs, and we toured around the prairies of Canada in a bus (how cool was that). I kind of got an early start at it. My parents loved all Canadian music. Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia (Tyson) and Joan Baez I think were their favourites. I grew up listening to folk music. They played a little, but only occasionally. They each knew five songs and would play them over and over, but it was cool. They sang in the home.

Gordon Lightfoot wrote some great songs?
Yeah, he did.

One of my favourites is “Ten Degrees And Getting’ Colder”?
Another great one is “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”. Oh, it’s great! My parents had a guitar lying around the house, that is how I got started. I would be only six or seven. My mom grew up in Colorado and she would sing western songs, like cowboy songs, and I learned to sing harmonies to those. Music was always available when I was little.

What was the first band you were in?
High school of course, during my time in Connecticut every neighbourhood had a band, a rock’n’roll band. We would perform at the thing called Battle Of the Bands. All these regional bands would be up against one another.

Who were your favourite guitar players?
Basically, at that time it was The Rolling Stones, The Band and Credence Clearwater Revival were my bread and butter. But I am more a rhythm guitar player and never really aspired to be a lead player per se. I got more interested in playing rhythm, and singing. If there is no song (lyrics) then I am lost. I am not interested.

When did you become a full-time musician?
It was pretty late, actually. My dad was a biologist and I was raised to be a biologist. I got a PhD from Connell, so I was a professional scientist, but the whole time I played music, all the time. At High school, everywhere I went. At a certain point we formed this band, Donna The Buffalo. An Americana jam kind of a band. I was in Grad. School at Cornell University, and just thought this was for me. I just left biology and started touring with them. Full-time. I have pretty much played music full-time since then.

They have this cult-like following?
They do. It is not a huge following, but it is very dedicated. Very dedicated, oh, my gosh. I was with them from the founding. I guess I was with them for twenty years. When we were really going, we toured non-stop. Coast to coast and from North to South and we had our own tour bus, the whole deal. Old time music was always in the background and has always been big with us.

I thought you were most generous when you gave Tara Nevins solo album credit for the record, “Mule To Ride” because it could just as easily have been released as a duet album?
It could have been! It could have been. It should have been, says Miller as he laughs at the irony of it.

It would have made a good duet recording, since you sing lead on the majority (thirteen) of the songs (it is a twenty-track album) on the record?
Like with the Dirk record, it launched Dirk’s career. I felt it was more a group thing. But, who cares. I enjoyed making that Mule To Ride record because I got to sing with Ralph Stanley on that record and meeting people. Dirk also played on that record.

It is most interesting that you mention Ralph Stanley, and who wouldn’t because soon after the record you actually made a recording with Donna The Buffalo of Man Of Constant Sorrow?
Yeah, we recorded it before the guy in Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? recorded it. Before the movie came out and Dan Tyminski had a hit with it!

Your version was a different version altogether?
Very different!

Richie and Jenny Stearns were also with you for a spell in Donna The Buffalo, and two most interesting people?
Yes, great songwriters. We are all the founding of the band.

Richie did a tremendous job on Natalie Merchant’s album The House Carpenter’s Daughter?
Yes, he did a lot of work with Natalie. Judy from The Horseflies is on there too. I am also founder member of the band. I played fiddle he laughs. There was Richie, Jeff and Judy, and John Haywood on bass and myself. That was the very first line-up of Horseflies. I lived in Cornell at the time, and they were up in Ithaca, New York State.

Going back to Cahalen, when he sings the songs with Western Centuries it seems to come so natural. There is no denying this is his kind of music?
Yes, it does. Every thing sounds like it is his music. To me it does, it is a huge gift. He’s not trying. Like you said, it comes naturally. The thing that I really enjoy about him and Ethan is, it has pumped me up.

I can imagine that. Ethan’s songs are so clever, and witty?
Yeah, and he also has a great delivery. He’s new to being a lead guy to the role. He is getting into it and its fun to watch!

It is good to hear that Cahalen and Ethan are having a positive effect on you, and you also contribute with three songs on the record. Which is great to see?
Till this band, I never used to write, because when you are in a band you get a certain role. Like when I was in Donna The Buffalo I was a support guy. There are two songwriters there with such huge egos, well fair enough I will go along with it and try to help out. That was my role. That was fine. I liked it and was good at it, I think and contributed a lot. Jeb and me intertwined on guitar and it got pretty interesting at times. Tara and me worked together because we were married for a pretty long time. I helped how she would write songs and help her whatever. Then at a certain point I decided I was tired of being the backup guy, and the only way not to be that was write my own songs to bring to the show. That put the pressure on me to try writing and I am really having fun with it. Ethan and Cahalen are so supportive. They are both already great songwriters, I feel like I am struggling. You could not wish for better folk to be writing with, or be in a band with. I am having great fun!

They will no doubt learn from you. I was really knocked out by your singing on Dirk Powell’s record. It sometimes takes a good harmony singer to get the best out of someone. Like with Emmylou Harris?
Like when she sings with Mark Knopfler – they both lift to another level, there you have two voices you would not expect. But they sound awesome. That album they made “All the Roadrunning” I just love that record.

One song you wrote for Western Centuries “Knocking ‘Em Down” sounds like it has a good story behind it?
I was touring round with a different band, and it seemed we would never to get to the gig, and we were always driving (laughs). It was a different band. Between Donna The Buffalo and Western Centuries I have done a few things. I do a few side things, and it was one of those, and it was like are we ever going to get there. That is what started the song. We were in Pennsylvania and it was a blizzard blowing and we were in the middle of freaking nowhere.

Jim Lauderdale is a big fan of the band?
Oh yeah, I have known him for about twenty-five years.

He is phenomenal songwriter, the kind of guy who writes them in his sleep?
He does. We just saw him last weekend. He was at a little festival up here long the Hudson River. It goes from where I live in Newburgh right on down to New York City, and the little towns along the river are fabulous. One of them, Peekskill had a little festival. It was the first year they had it and Jim was the headliner, and there was a bunch of local country bands and it was awesome. He got me up to sing with him. His band was all hot shots. He always gets the best players oh, my god. Bob Dylan’s bass player Tony Garnier put it together. He lives a little south of me, and he’s known Lauderdale for a really long time. It had Kenny Kosek on fiddle, and Barry Mitterhoff the mandolin player with Hot Tuna. It was all these killer players.

I guess you will soon be getting ready to make a new album with Western Centuries?
We are, we will be making it in August. Everybody has five or six new songs that we will need to narrow down somehow. We all have new songs. We are ready to go, and are going to make it in Joel Savoy’s place in Eunice, Louisiana. In the heart of Cajun land, it is where his dad Mark (accordion maker) has his music store. We are hoping our agency in the UK Big City Lights will get us onto the Celtic Connections next January.

Author: Maurice Hope

Work for CEF, live in Hexham, Northumberland. Americana, country, folk and bluegrass Journalist since 1988 and currently write for Americana-UK.com, Flyinshoes and live reviews for Northern Echo and Jumpin’ Hot Club. Enjoy photography, walking, natural history, travel, reading and writing poetry.

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