You know that feeling when you hear a song for the first time, and you just know it is sure to change you?
There is a certain power in the first time that music floats through your ears or the lyrics reverberate in your mind. It feels almost uncomfortably personal, yet what could be more universal? Music binds us as humans. It transforms generations and molds minds. It builds love stories and sparks outrage.
A bit dramatic? I’ll steal a line of defense that Miles Miller used in our recent interview: “Sorry, that was my inner-hippie,” Miller said with a laugh on our phone call. We talked about everything from Youtube videos to car-drive playlists to the meaning of life (“Apparently it’s the number 43?”). I now echo him: Say hello to my inner-hippie.
Miles Miller’s Path to Sturgill Simpson’s Stage
Miles Miller is a drummer from Kentucky who plays in Sturgill Simpson’s band. He’s been on tour with Sturgill for eight years, and in that time, they’ve opened for the likes of Zac Brown Band, the Avett Brothers, and Guns N’ Roses. The band now headlines its own crowded concerts. They’ve been on plenty of different talk shows and won music awards.
Miles Miller’s resumé is far from dull. While still in high school, Miller was contacted by Dave Cobb, a producer best known for his work with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, and John Prine. He had seen young Miller’s drum covers on Youtube. A representative of Cobb’s reached out through MySpace- yes, MySpace – to set up a meeting between the music-lovers.
Three years later, Dave Cobb called Miller back to tell him he had a potential gig in Nashville. Cobb called to say, Sturgill Simpson, an up-and-coming artist Cobb had recently produced for, could be a good match for Miller. “I hadn’t heard of him at the time, well, no one had. So yeah, I moved to Nashville,” Miller recalled to me.
So yeah, he moved to Nashville. When John Prine and Jason Isbell’s producer tells you to move to Tennessee, you do it, even if it means moving from your beloved home state of Kentucky.
Soon after his move, Miles Miler realized he was on the right path. “We learned we graduated from the same high school in Kentucky 15 years apart,” he says about speaking with Sturgill Simpson for the first time. With Simpson’s connection to the time in his life that led to his discovery, Miles admits it was an immediate realization: “This is where I am supposed to be.“
Sturgill Simpson and Miles Miller: Kindred Kentucky Spirits
The connection to Kentucky and good ol’ Woodford County High School instantly bonded the two musicians.
“We understand the view of the world from there. Our take on the world. People, places, and things. You grow up with someone – or in the same place- you’re definitely kindred spirits.”
Of course, I had to follow that by asking about the kind of Kentucky spirit I prefer: bourbon.
To that, Miles Miller admits he’s a bit biased. Being from Woodford County in Kentucky, his choice is clear (on dark liquor that is). Woodford Reserve is what’s pouring. “I might be biased, but I think it’s the best all-around.”
Regional Noise Leads To Universal Sound
Tyler Childers released his ‘Purgatory’ album in 2017 with the help of Sturgill Simpson as co-producer and Miles Miller on drums and backing vocals. The three crafted Childers’ debut album into a piece of art through lively music as well as thought-provoking lyrics.
You see, the three of them are kindred spirits… You guessed it: Kentucky. Miles Miller credits their Kentucky roots for their instant connection and their ability to expand their music’s reach.
“There’s always that Kentucky thing. There’s always that respect in the music for that place,” Miller says of both Childers and Simpson.
Not only is there a respect for the place, but a deep understanding of the state’s meaning in their own lives. Miller says understanding where you come from and who you are is key to bringing regionally-specific music to all people.
He says the two singers know Kentucky “is where they come from, and I think they both understand where they come from and try to bring that to the world to be universal.”
Miller also says that in order for any artist to be able to reach a wide audience, it is crucial to first understand one’s roots. There is no way to spread your limbs wide if your roots are too shallow with no grasp on their own soil. And yes, the drummer knows that sounds cliché.
“You have to know where you’re from and the roots of that to be able to go anywhere. As cliche as that is. To be universal, you almost have to be regional first,” he says. You must know your roots, your background, your identity first, and “then branch out.”
That goes far beyond singing on stage and playing the drums, though. “I mean that’s just in life, too, you know?” Miles Miller adds.
It seems almost too poetic that the Purgatory album Miller and Simpson helped Tyler Childers create back in 2017 is about just that: discovering your identity and finding your place in this nutty world. Understanding your home while balancing a growing reach. Shortly before Purgatory’s release, Childers spoke with Rolling Stone on the debut album.
He says the album is about a transition between places. “Getting into trouble and finding the way out of it, finding where you are supposed to be. Finding your place. Purgatory is hell, with hope. You have a fighting chance.”
Yeah, I’ll write that again. Hell with hope…2020, is that you?
Of course, it’s only natural that one of the biggest hits on the three Kentucky boys’ Purgatory album is “Universal Sound.”
Sturgill Simpson is ‘Completely Unafraid’ in Music Attempts ‘To Reach Different People’
Miles Miller of course says one of the best artists in understanding regional sound in order to expand his reach is Sturgill Simpson.
“Maybe I’m a little biased, but he’s done that better than any artist,” Miller says. “His first record was traditional country and then he takes different directions and he’s unafraid.”
Simpson’s ability to pivot genre or sound is something that any of his fans will surely mention right off the bat. His albums all have a different feel, but somehow, they are all country music to a T.
“The moment he opens his mouth, you know it’s going to be country. It’s going to be country music in a sense,” Miles says of Sturgill’s undeniably unique sound.
He goes so far as to say that repetition and monotony is nearly the nemesis of Sturgill Simpson. “He always tells me ‘I can’t do the same thing twice,’ even live.”
Though they’ve played together eight years now, Miller still can’t seem to fully comprehend the equation behind Simpson’s ever-changing style. “After 8 years of it, you’d think I’d figure it out, but I haven’t figured it out,” he laughs.
“That’s his M.O.. he wants it on fire and he wants it dangerous. He wants it with purpose. He wants it in the moment,” Miles Miller adds.
Don’t mind me, just jotting down “On Fire and Dangerous With Purpose in the Moment” as my next pretend album title.
Music As “The Glue That Connects Us’
Hey, the inner-hippie is back.
Have you had time to remember that moment you heard the song that changed you? The song that wrote your love story or (attempted) to mend a broken heart? The mind-reading lyrics or fiddle twang or bass drop that made you put a song on repeat until you memorized every second of it?
You can have several. Tyler Childer’s voice and calm guitar strum in “Lady May” gives me chills, and I cried when I saw it in Paramount’s Yellowstone. Rascal Flatts’ “Mayberry” takes me back to seven years old shouting the lyrics on my way to soccer practice. The lyrics in “Soapbox” by Brent Cobb made me play his recent album on repeat for an entire weekend in the North Carolina mountains.
Songs define moments and memories for each individual. They also connect us. A shared experience of lyrical glue that binds us as human beings amongst our differing backgrounds or memories.
In fact, that’s the whole point of music, Miles Miller’s inner-hippie says.
“I mean what person, left, right, black or white, gay, straight, doesn’t like music? Music is the glue for every kind of person,” he explains. “That’s the whole point of music. It’s to make you think about something or relate to someone.”
Music has the power to change minds and grow an understanding of differences. “Put a guitar to it, put any kind of music behind an idea, and it can change people’s minds.”
Miles Miller adds being able to see that moment of change or realization of intensely masterful music is amazing. He’s even been watching Youtube videos of people listening to music by The Band in his free-time. “There are these reaction videos of people hearing stuff for the first time. It gives me chills to be able to see people hear those songs for the first time. It makes me think of when I heard that stuff for the first time.“
Miller also adds a quick note about the polarity of political parties today. “Political people, or whatever, we’re just human beings.”
So, entering tomorrow’s election, let’s crank the stereo up to 11. Let’s listen to the songs that act as time machines to the moment we first heard them. Let’s shout the lyrics of songs that remind us that surviving this “Hell with hope” is possible when working (and singing) together. I’m pouring a glass of Woodford Reserve and turning on “Life Ain’t Fair and The World Is Mean.” Come sing with me. Let’s get universal.