Thus Always to Tyrants (Sugar Hill)
Miller plays June 23 at 12th & Porter
Breaking up may be hard to do, but it is almost always the best, if hardest, route to artistic growth and fulfillment. At least it is if you’re Knoxvillian Scott Miller, former frontman of the now defunct V-roys. Their start was promising, boosted by the attention and guidance of Steve Earle, and the group’s slightly fractious divorce (from both Earle and each other) at the start of 2000 marked the end of what had been developing into a fresh, fun rock ’n’ twang sound.
While the band itself burned out, the musicians in it haven’t faded away. Mic Harrison, Jeff Bills, and Paxton Sellers split off to form The Faults. While Sellers and Bills later stepped out of the touring lineup, Harrison’s rock-pop talents illuminate any stage this new band, originally dubbed the “Three-roys,” hops upon.
Scott Miller chose to concentrate on a solo career. With the June 12 release of Thus Always to Tyrants, he has found a richer, more rewarding sound that recalls both the rock energy of Neil Young and the Appalachian lonesomeness of Ralph Stanley. The album is an amalgam of several styles of musicfrom the Replacements-esque passion of “Absolution” to the folk-infused “Dear Sarah.” What keeps it all hanging together is Miller’s sharp songwriting, snide humor, and earnest tenor. While all of these traits were evident in the V-roys, here they take on a crystalline sparkle.
For the new album, Miller assembled a new band of merry men he dubs the Commonwealth, an homage to his home state of Virginia. “The Commonwealth,” he explains, “is anyone and everyone that helped me get this record finished over the last year and a half. There is no way I could have done this record alone. I had the songs and an idea of what I wanted to try and do, but starting from the inception, Bob Kirsch at Welk, my publisher; R.S. Field, who produced it; Jim Demain, who engineered; and my career guidance counselor, Brad Hunt, all helped.” The Commonwealth also refers to the musicians who played on Tyrants, including such hitters as Dave Grissom and Tim O’Brien, as well as Jimmy Lester, Jared Reynolds, and Rob McNelley, who will serve as Miller’s touring band while he’s on the road for the next few months.
“Some of these guys are more well known than others,” he says, “but all played with feel and focus and listened to what I wanted to try. If the record succeeds, it’s due to them. If it fails, it’s due to me. But the definitions of those two terms are subjective. I think it’s succeeded just because the son-of-a-bitch was finished.”
The release of Miller’s new solo record doesn’t mean that he can leave his past behind, though. He’s still often asked what it was like to work with Steve Earle. “The V-roys benefited so much from our working with him, it’s like a penitence,” he says of the frequent queries. “We got to start on second base in many ways that other bands didn’t. There were also downsides. It was like having to go to high school where your father teaches.
“I feel so lucky to have gotten this far and do what I love for a living. I look at every record as the last one I’ll get to make, and every day [is] one less day I have to have a regular job. I’m quite paranoid, but I’m sure it will all end any day now, so I try not to bitch.”
No laughing matter
If comedy is not pretty, as Steve Martin used to say, it almost got downright ugly for Shane Caldwell. The Nashville comedian recorded a solo comedy album for Disney’s Lyric Street Records last year, but the label gradually decided it didn’t know how to get the record airplay. Now Caldwell is releasing the album himself on his own Rush Hour label, and he’s showcasing the material at TPAC’s Johnson Hall next Wednesday night.
Caldwell is still perhaps best known for the Sylvan Brothers, the comedy team he founded on public-access TV with Howard Fox in 1985. Over a five-year run, the show was taped, played on tour buses, and passed around Music Row. “I’ve been a fan of his since the early days,” says Doug Howard, Lyric Street’s senior VP of A&R. It was Howard who got excited about the prospect of releasing a Caldwell comedy record. In 1999, after the success of Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall, a spoken-word country comedy record seemed easy to market.
But by the time Caldwell and his producer/manager Ray Methvin delivered the record last July, they’d sensed a cooling in the label’s enthusiasm. A Lyric Street comedy record by a group called Chuck Wagon & the Wheels met with blank incomprehension at country radio. So when Lyric Street chief Randy Goodman told Caldwell and Methvin the record sounded too good, Caldwell says, they figured the blade was swinging. “It was a painful process,” says Howard, who asserts himself repeatedly as a Caldwell fan. “He cut this funny, great record, but we might not have been the best ones to get it out there.”
Getting it out there is now Caldwell’s job. Ironically, the album’s title is Drive Time. Its mix of skits, songs, and bogus programming evoke a car radio set on endless scan. Commercials for “Teddy’s Taco Tavern” and a heavily bleeped drive-in feature called Military Courtesy vie for airtime with the good-ol’-boy dial-in show “Let’s Call Some Whores.” A sports-talk segment is sponsored by Nicotea, “the tobacco-flavored sports drink.”
Except for two charactersincluding a rehab nurse played by WSMV-Channel 4 anchor Demetria KalodimosCaldwell performed all of the record’s 38 voices himself. He also recorded a version of Loudon Wainwright III’s “Dead Skunk” with Sam Bush and Jon Randall, and a country lament called “I Like Country Music How It Was.” As a vocalist, Caldwell says, “I’m the only sumbitch in town who’ll admit to using ProTools. On this record, I’m damn Caruso.”
To celebrate the record’s release this week, Caldwell will perform the material live at TPAC in what he calls “a flyover-zone version of Eric Bogosian’s Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll.” The trouble with Lyric Street soured him on the music industry, but not on his record. “Am I bitter? No,” Caldwell says. “Was I bitter? Shit, yes. It was a kick in the balls. But Ray and I believe in this thing. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be doing it.”
Bass is the place
The electric bass revolutionized rock, blues, and R&B after the Fender began making its mark in the early ’50s. After bandleaders began recognizing how the Fender’s sound could change the relationship between the rhythm section and the lead players, the acoustic bass was exiled to the jazz and classical worlds. An exhaustively researched new book, How the Fender Bass Changed the World (Backbeat), by Bass Player founding editor and former publisher Jim Roberts, examines the instrument’s history, its development as a viable alternative to the acoustic, and those players considered the top electric stylists.
Roberts cites Nashville’s Victor Wooten among ’90s virtuosos and describes his style and equipment in great detail. Roberts also discusses many other remarkable players, including Jaco Pastorius; reggae impresario Aston “Family Man” Barrett; rockers Sting, Billy Sheehan, and Jeff Berlin; jazz iconoclasts Steve Swallow, Darryl Jones, and Marcus Miller; and the unclassifiable Flea.
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