Songwriter Spotlight: Lee Thomas Miller

Writer behind the latest hits by Garth Brooks and Brad Paisley, among a laundry list of other chart-scalers, shares stories of career highs and lows

Lee Thomas Miller poses with his ACM Award for Song of the Year, for Jamey Johnson's "In Color," which he co-wrote with Johnson and James Otto. Credit: Denise Truscello/Getty Images

Growing up in rural Kentucky, Lee Thomas Miller's goal was to become a member of country super group Alabama.

"I was possessed. My mother called it a curse," he says with a laugh. "I wanted to be the new guy in Alabama that stood over on the end and played all the instruments. That was the dream."

Even though that particular dream never came to fruition, Miller's reality isn't too shabby. One of Music Row's most successful songwriters, Miller is current president of Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) and has written hits for Trace Adkins ("You're Gonna Miss This"), Brad Paisley ("The World" and "I'm Still a Guy"), Terri Clark ("I Just Wanna Be Mad"), Joe Nichols ("The Impossible") and Thomas Rhett ("Something to Do With My Hands").

"You're Gonna Miss This" was the 2008 NSAI Song of the Year and 2009 ACM Single of the Year. He also co-wrote Jamey Johnson's "In Color," which won the Song of the Year in 2009 from both the Academy of Country Music (ACM) and the Country Music Association (CMA). A BMI affiliated writer, currently signed to Warner/Chappell Music, Miller's credits also include Garth Brooks' comeback single "People Loving People," Paisley's current hit "Perfect Storm" and two cuts on Jason Aldean's new album — the title track "Old Boots, New Dirt" and "Too Fast."

Miller was raised just south of Lexington in tiny Nicholasville, Kentucky. "I grew up on a tobacco farm. My parents did not play music," he says. "I had an uncle that played at the VFW on Friday and Saturday night. He had guitars and I thought that was awesome. I got real serious about guitar, then got real serious about piano, and then wanted to play fiddle. My mother found a place in Lexington, rented me a violin and would drive me up there once a week to take violin lessons."

When Miller enrolled in Eastern Kentucky University, his parents had dreams of him becoming a successful businessman, but that plan derailed during orientation. "They took the parents this way and they took the kids that way, and did the day," he recalls. "When we came back together that afternoon, I was a music major. Mom was not thrilled, but I got my degree in music theory/composition and studied classical violin, voice, piano, and guitar. It was fantastic."

Miller moved to Nashville in June 1991 and originally set his sights on being an artist. Less than a month later, he landed a job playing fiddle in Tom T. Hall's band. "By July 3, I was on the bus with Tom T. Hall and he fired me July 6 — just three days," he says. "I was green at 21. I was not ready. But then fast forward, as I was really getting settled in and by the time I truly could be competing for those kinds of jobs, I was writing songs and trying to be an artist. Somebody showed some interest and I was chasing that."

His career as a singer didn't catch fire, but his songwriting skills began gaining attention. He signed a deal with Hamstein Music in 1996. "I would just sit over there and shut up and listened and learned how to do it. That's how I became a professional songwriter," says Miller, who spent eight years at Hamstein, nine with Sea Gayle Music and is now signed to Warner/Chappell. "I have dear friends there [at Warner/Chappell] and it's a wonderful situation. I'm very happy."

It was during his early days at Hamstein that Miller met a young singer/songwriter named Brad Paisley. "He had signed his deal, but nothing had come out," Miller recalls. "We got to be friends. I remember one day he sat and played guitar. You know you're in Nashville with the world's greatest musicians, and you think you've seen everything you can possibly see, and I remember that day thinking, 'Now, this guy plays! I don't know what he's writing. I don't know how he sings, but oh my word! He plays!"

Early in Miller's career, he began getting cuts by Ken Mellons, Mindy McCready, Mark Wills, Blackhawk and other artists, but it was Joe Nichols that provided Miller with his first Number One hit when "The Impossible" topped the chart. "I remember I was at the YMCA that morning and they paged me," he remembers. "I'd been running, heart pounding. We didn't have a cell phone even then, and that was 2002. So I went to [the desk] and I picked up the phone, my wife was crying and she said, 'Your publisher called. You're Number One!" We jumped from Number Five to Number One, which I wasn't expecting. I don't know what we did to celebrate. Honestly, we were so poor. Joe bought the house we were living in with that song. And it opened up a lot of doors."

Miller has continued to build on that success. He was named Breakthrough Songwriter of the Year in 2003 and has since been nominated for three Grammy Awards. He's a sought-after collaborator. He penned "In Color" with James Otto, writes regularly with Paisley when he working on a new album and penned Tim McGraw's No. 1 hit "Southern Girl" with Rodney Clawson and Jaren Johnston.

Does he prefer co-writing to writing solo? "I've never had any success alone, but I don't do it that much," he says. "I think we go back to what we feel like works. I enjoy collaborating. I love the community. Songwriters are so deeply disturbed and yet so interesting. I love the fraternity."

One of the songs that Miller co-wrote that generated the largest amount of press was never a single. He and Paisley penned "Accidental Racist" for Paisley's Wheelhouse album and enlisted LL Cool J to write a rap expressing his sentiments on racism in the U.S. Reaction to the song was swift and often brutal. "It hurt me a lot," Miller admits. "It wasn't that the song was taken the wrong way; the song said what it was supposed to say."

Miller and his wife, Jana, have one biological child and three adopted children, including a daughter from South Korea and a biracial son. He laments they've weathered their fair share of racism toward their son. "Noah has big hands and big grin, and dimples, and this gorgeous, crazy curly hair," he says proudly. "And we would have people say terrible insulting stuff, if you can imagine! So we kind of started bristling about it: 'Yeah, you want to say something? Want to fight?' I would become that dad. It's really, really sad. I'm not understanding how culture can be like that."

So the fact that he and Paisley wrote a positive song trying to create a dialog about race, and it became so ridiculed, was a bitter pill. But the affable songwriter has learned to shrug and move on. His latest hit with Paisley, "Perfect Storm," is a tender love song that carries no such emotional baggage. Many of the lines were written with Miller's wife, Jana, in mind. She heard the song for the first time when Paisley performed it at a show in the U.K. Miller recalls Paisley saying, "Honestly, this song is probably more about your wife than it is mine," which thrilled Jana. "She took ownership completely of what Brad was saying," Miller smiles. "So there's a lot of emotion tied up in that song."

Miller spends the bulk of his time writing songs, but as president of NSAI, he's happy to be giving back to the writing community by lobbying for songwriter's rights. He has made trips to Washington D.C. to testitfy for legislation that protects intellectual property. "I started doing the D.C. trips and I was blown away with the fact we could go up there, take our guitars, and go in and sing for them in Congress," he says. "I felt that was the American system at its best; that you could walk into your representative government and lobby for yourself. I thought that was fantastic."

Last June, Miller testified before a judiciary hearing. "[NSAI Executive Director] Bart Herbison calls and says, 'You're in. You're testifying before Congress and you have to prepare a five-minute statement. You cannot exceed five minutes.'" Miller says. "It was the most intense, nerve-wracking five minutes of my life, but very rewarding. There's big changes going on, very positive things. I'm honored and overwhelmed to get to sit in the seat and have the conversation. It's one of the greatest things I've ever done."

Miller's original plan of joining Alabama didn't happen, but he did get to play on stage with them during one show. Randy Owen called him on stage, telling the audience how much he loved the Joe Nichols hit "The Impossible" and then asked Miller to sing it, accompanied by Alabama.

It was another highlight in an impressive career. "I don't take any of it for granted," he says. "I feel very blessed that good things happen and I get to hang out with these tremendously talented people. And every now and then, they say yes and cut a song."