Jonny Miller of the Lonesome Days Finds Healing in Painful Songs

The Lonesome Days plays at the Denver Food and Wine Festival on September 9.
The Lonesome Days plays at the Denver Food and Wine Festival on September 9. Courtesy photo
Jonny Miller, the mandolin player and vocalist for up-and-coming bluegrass quartet the Lonesome Days, wasn’t always a musician. He picked up guitar well after graduating from college, but wasn’t very good at it. One year at RockyGrass, a guy told him that the mandolin was great because it was easy to play while singing. Miller gave it a try and never looked back.

“Once I got to a spot where the guitar just wasn’t doing it for me, I bought a mandolin, got a lesson, and just started practicing anywhere from two to three hours a night to eight hours a night,” says Miller. “Sometimes I’d forget to eat dinner, sometimes I’d forget to shower, and sometimes I’d forget to do both. I’d just sit on the porch and play and play.”

The layout of the new instrument made a lot more sense to him than the guitar's. “After I switched, I realized that most of my favorite musicians at the time were mandolin players,” says Miller. “I was really heavy into the Punch Brothers and the Infamous Stringdusters when Jesse Cobb played mandolin for them.”

As Miller continued practicing, he formed strong friendships with members of another new Colorado string band, Trout Steak Revival. He witnessed firsthand the countless hours those musicians put into working on their sound as a group. In 2014, Miller went to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival with them and watched them take home first place at the Band Contest. Afterward, he returned to RockyGrass and jammed with a lot of other musicians that he looked up to. That’s when he quit his full-time job as an electrician to focus on music.

Over the next year, he began putting together the lineup of the Lonesome Days. After some initial turnover, the group has stabilized as a four-piece, with Sam Parks and Todd Lilienthal playing banjo and Bradley Morse on bass.

Miller had one goal on his mind after the band formed: winning the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s Band Contest, like his friends with Trout Steak. Last round, his band didn’t win, but it came damn close, finishing as the runner-up. Above all, this gave the new group confidence.

“That was a real eye-opener to the possibilities of the future of the group,” says Miller. “It gave us the confidence to feel like we were on the right track and had good content in our songs.”

From there, the Lonesome Days started preparing to make a record, but personal issues got in the way, and the bandmates held off. Now, Miller says this delay was one of the best things that happened to them. They had more time to improve their sound and build their local fan base. They finally released a debut album, The Lonesome Days, in August 2017.

“It’s just been quite a journey, man,” says Miller. "From going full-time working to quitting my job on a whim to running a Kickstarter campaign to finish the production of the album, we’ve really put our necks on the line.”

The resulting record – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the band's name – contains songs that are full of pain and loneliness. Song titles include “Chasing Down the Whiskey” and “Anthem for the Lonely.”

One of the most powerful songs, “Twenty-Five,” is about how stupid decisions we make when we're young can continue to haunt us. For Miller, this bad decision was getting married at 22. “I got married really young, in a naïve sort of way,” says Miller. “Of course I was in love, but you start to change when you get older. After things fell apart, it was hard to trust people unconditionally. My inability to trust has reverberated through all my relationships since that point in my life.”

Another lonesome song, “Who’s Gonna Cry,” has to do with the isolating experience of death. “I wrote that song after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Florida,” says Miller. “Being a graduate of Columbine High School in 1998, the Columbine shooting and any mass shooting following that really affects me deeply. I got to thinking about what it’s like to die alone in a room full of people.”

Yet despite the sadness of these songs, Miller finds the process of writing and singing about these emotions to be healing.

“You can put pain into a bottle of whiskey and drink it down. You can put pain into a needle and shoot it down. You can take that pain and turn it into anger and self-loathing,” says Miller. “Personally, I put that pain into my songs.”

The Lonesome Days at the Denver Food and Wine Festival, Saturday, September 9, Larceny Bourbon Tent, Denver Food and Wine Festival.
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Sage Marshall is a freelance writer and editor covering outdoor recreation, environmental issues, Denver's music scene, the arts, and other Colorado stories. You can check out more of his work and connect with him here.
Contact: Sage Marshall