Just two days before Thanksgiving, Scott Miller heads outdoors at an early morning hour. There’s work to be done. Since 2011, he’s been logging most of his time at his family’s cattle farm near Staunton, Virginia, surrounded by 200 acres of rolling Shenandoah Valley countryside. Miller runs the place, overseeing six dozen Angus cows during the daytime hours and, at night, tending to his parents, who are both in their 80s.
“That’s two full-time jobs,” he admits. “I can’t play 150 shows a year anymore. I have to really make time for music.”
Two decades ago, Miller’s days were spent in a van, his nights celebrated onstage. As frontman of the V-Roys, he blended the punch of late-Nineties roots rock with the hillbilly stomp of Appalachian country, laying the groundwork for a new genre – Americana – that wouldn’t coalesce until years after the band’s breakup. The V-Roys operated out of Knoxville, and although their success at home never translated to national acclaim, they did make a fan out of Steve Earle, who signed the group to his own label and took Miller under his wing.
Now, on mornings like this one, Miller walks the farm with a notebook and tape recorder tucked into his work clothes. He’s learned to make the most of any musical ideas that swirl past the farmhouse. The notebook is filled with lyrics. The recorder is stocked with melodies. Everything gets jotted down, and the rest – the bulk of the work, actually – is mostly editing.
“It’s just a matter of making the time to sit down and sift through it all,” he says. “Steve Earle once told me, ‘You use the eraser end of your pencil more than the pointy end when you’re writing,’ and he’s right. You’ve gotta write 10 pounds of shit just to get to something good.”
It took four years of edits to create Ladies Auxiliary, Miller’s latest release. Recorded in Tennessee with an all-female cast, it’s equal parts humorous and heartfelt, shot through with social commentary, working-class twang and character-driven songwriting. Everything starts with “Epic Love,” the album’s kickoff track, which finds Miller – once a hard-partying frontman, now a clean, clear-headed solo act – tracing the arc of a failed romance. In the video above, he performs the song on Music City Roots, with longtime collaborator Bryn Davies driving “Epic Love” forward on upright bass.
Elsewhere, Ladies Auxiliary ropes everything from Celtic folk to western swing into its pen, turning the album into a melting pot of Americana traditions. Miller even channels Bob Dylan on “Lo Siento Spanishburg WVa,” a speak-sung tribute to a West Virginia town whose residents find themselves crowded out by a wave of rich, relocated retirees from nearby Washington, D.C.
“I call it ‘spaghetti making music,'” he says. “It’s the kind of album you put on when you’re making spaghetti before your girlfriend comes over. It’s consistent, too. On earlier albums, I’d have a bluegrass song and then a punk song and then a straight-up rock song. I’d jump around so much so that I couldn’t imagine someone sitting down with those records and getting stoned to them. But this one is different.”
His schedule is different, too. After a quick run of December shows, Miller will spent the first three months of the new year at home, focusing on feeding his herd. Come summertime, he’ll spend about a month baling hay. These are the demands of a life spent running a cattle farm. Throughout it all, he’s still keeping those notebooks close, ready whenever the muse strikes.
“When I was growing up,” he says, “my dad listened to big bands. I’d hear Ella Fitzgerald singing these Cole Porter songs, and that’s what always came through to me: the song. That’s what I always go for. It’s the song, the story, the point – it’s whatever trying to get across. You can’t lose sight of it.”