It was the summer of 1991, and Miller —who learned to play guitar, piano and violin during his early years in Kentucky — had lived in Nashville for four weeks. He’d moved to town with one goal in mind: to land a spot in Alabama’s touring band, where he could put his multi-instrumentalist skills to work. When Tom T. Hall offered him some work as a fiddle player, though, Miller quickly accepted, joining Hall’s band for a Florida tour that July. The tour kicked off on July 3rd, and by the 6th, Miller was asked to pack up his gear and head back home. Luckily, his brief time onstage helped lay the brickwork for a more fruitful songwriting career.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” admits Miller, who began making appointments with some Music Row’s top-shelf songwriters after returning to Nashville. Initially, the plan was to whip up material for a potential solo career. Miller could sing, after all, and he played more instruments than most Nashville frontmen. Still, it was his songwriting that caught the ear of Jeff Carlton, head of the independent publishing company Hamstein Music.
“I’d written with some of Hamstein’s writers,” Miller remembers, “and one day, Jeff said, ‘I actually don’t think you can sing at all, but I think you can write songs. If you want a publishing deal as a stepping stone to be an artist, I’m not interested. But if you wanna be a songwriter, let’s do it.'”
Miller was game. Two decades later, he’s expanded his songwriting career to include a high-profile gig as the president of Nashville Songwriter’s Association International. A self-described “ideas man” who prides himself on kickstarting his co-writing sessions with a song title, quirky turn-of-phrase or melodic idea, Miller found some downtime to speak with Rolling Stone Country in a home just off Music Row, where he talked about his songwriting successes before, appropriately, jetting off to another co-writing session.
Frankie Ballard, “El Camino” (Chris Stapleton, Lee Thomas Miller)
I signed with [publishing company] Seagull in 2004, and Chris was already there. He was this nonconforming, amazingly raw talent guy trying to figure out his place in the business. I don’t think people knew what to do with him. He was great, but he’s kind of an introvert and he didn’t really play the game. He didn’t go out there and try to sell himself. . .We wrote together very steadily. I tell people that he was my every-other Wednesday co-write for years. It was the greatest. I’m still getting cuts from those days, even on the current Jason Aldean and David Nail albums.
“El Camino” was written four years ago. I’m obsessed with being the “ideas guy.” I’m obsessed with words. We’ve gone through this era in country where things aren’t as melodic as they used to be. Maybe it’s the hip hop influence, because country songs these days are more chanty and rhythmic. With Stapleton, I would focus on lyrics and ideas. I didn’t even bring a guitar to most of those co-writes. At the time, his office was like a vintage music store run by hoarders. It would be wall-to-wall amps and vintage gear. A lot of it was really cheap stuff, but he would make it sound amazing. So I would come in there with cool words or something, and I’d seen something about an El Camino, and I thought it was just this edgy, dark term. I brought that in, and we beat it around and made it what it was. The only problem was, everything Chris sang would sound amazing, so you didn’t really know if the song was any good or not! Everything just sounded cool when Chis was singing the demo.
A couple of times, Chris and I would write Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and we’d demo everything on Friday. It was just me and him, and it was awesome. “El Camino” came from one of those weeks. We also wrote a song for Aldean called “Too Fast,” and a song that Randy Houser cut called “One Way.” Those were all done that week.
Brad Paisley, “Perfect Storm” (Brad Paisley, Lee Thomas Miller)
Brad is like Chris [Stapleton], in that he’s definitely an artist, but he’s a songwriter first. He could’ve easily written songs for a living, or been a session guitarist. Brad always does well with the big, unashamed love ballad, and he’s very patient and meticulous. We’ll write and rewrite a song for months. You may get together one day and come up with the gist of a song, and that fires him up, and that emotionally invests him, and now he’s going to be all about making it right, no matter how long it takes. “Perfect Storm” was like that. We had some version of it, and then it would change. Brad has amazing friends, and I got a call from one him one year on New Years Eve at one in the afternoon. He’s in California staying with some Hollywood movie producer, and I’m at Lowes doing some husband chores. So he’s staying at this guy’s house and he’s out jogging. Brad likes to call you while he’s jogging. So I’m standing in the aisles at Lowes, and he’s running a new draft of the chorus from “Perfect Storm” by me. We cut it up and kept the lines we loved. I heard him play it for the first time in London, a few months later, with my wife in the audience. He introduced the song by saying, “Lee, this song is probably more about your wife than it is about mine,” and whether that was actually true or not, he said it in front of thousands of people — including my wife — and I remember thinking, “Ok, London just got fun.”
Chris Stapleton, “Whiskey and You” (Chris Stapleton, Lee Thomas Miller)
That was written in 2005 or so, during the period where I was still trying to see if Chris liked me or not. I think he was still kind of unsure, actually! Maybe that song helped convince him. We weren’t writing the song for Tim McGraw, who wound up cutting it first. We weren’t chasing radio airplay or anything. We were just trying to be as authentic as we could be. Tim cut it very quickly, and I’ve always thought that no one sounds more like the radio than Tim McGraw. I love his version. But man, Chris’ recording is just great. It’s probably never going to be a single, but that doesn’t matter. It’s like this great piece of country art.
Brothers Osborne, “It Ain’t My Fault” (John Osborne, TJ Osborne, Lee Thomas Miller)
They’d been making that album, Pawn Shop, for a long time. The charts are weird now, and unless you’re Tim McGraw or Brad or Carrie Underwood, a single takes a long time to break. So [Brothers Osborne] were out there, just playing shows and trying to get an album done, and they were cool. But I didn’t know them. I didn’t know anything about them. So [publishing group] Warner/Chappell sets up a co-write for us. It’s a blind date. I go over there and it was relaxed, and they were incredibly talented. We just talked and hung out. We wrote half of that song during the first day, but then somebody had to be somewhere that afternoon, so we decided to finish it later. Sure enough, we set it up for four or five weeks later, and then that gets moved, and then it gets moved again. Then we finally get back together and finish the song, and I probably thought we were writing for the next package, because I was sure the first album was already done. I didn’t want to push it or ask too many questions. Three months down the road, I’m driving into work one day, and I heard them on The Bobby Bones Show and remember how much I loved that band. I literally googled the track listing when I got home and saw that our song was on it.
Bobby Bones & the Raging Idiots, “I Like You” (Bobby Bones, Lee Thomas Miller)
Black River Entertainment signed Bobby Bones to a record deal, and one of my old friends was producing his comedy album. I was asked to come write with him. So again, it’s a blind date. I don’t know Bobby. Everyone’s always trying to meet Bobby, and all the country artists want him to break their song, but the reality is, Bobby just plays what Bobby wants. So Bobby and I get together, and he’s immediately very gracious, and we kind of get to know each other. He said, “I’ve never told a girl I love her,” so we wrote a song making fun of it. He’s always been shockingly honest on his show. He’s almost painfully transparent. Songwriting is funny, because when you write for artists, you’re not creating your own art — you’re helping the artist create their art. You’re there to help them do their thing. And that song sums up his kind of comedy.