John R. Miller had a haunted upbringing. It wasn't that his family life was rough, or that he experienced any paranormal possessions. But the place where he lived and came of age — the eastern panhandle of West Virginia along the Potomac River — has a ghostly history.
“It’s a haunted place. In some ways, it’s frozen in time. So much old stuff has lingered there, and its history is still very present,” the singer-songwriter says. And growing up playing in bands often meant gigging in old chapels. “I just wanted to make music, and there’s no real infrastructure for that there. We had to travel to play regularly, and as teenagers, most of our gigs were spent playing in old church halls or Ruritan clubs.”
So it’s no surprise that Rolling Stone used "haunting and compelling" to describe Miller’s music, particularly from his 2021 album, Depreciated. Tyler Childers, a prominent peer in the new wave of outlaw country and Americana, is a fan of Miller’s as well, calling him a “a well-traveled wordsmith mapping out the world he’s seen, three chords at a time.”
As for Miller, he views music as “a pretty good form of therapy.” It’s more about the journey and coming up with tunes along the way, he says, than it is about conveying a certain message or mood.
“I think you’re always trying to refine it. I played in a bunch of different bands over the years and learned a lot by doing that. The past decade or so, I’ve just been writing songs and seeing how they land. A bunch of songs have gotten reworked over time as sensibilities change and things like that,” he says. “I don’t know how super intentional it is when the heavy, feeling stuff comes out. If you try to write often, you’ll end up catching a bunch of different feelings, maybe even about the same thing.”
You have two chances to catch Miller in Denver this weekend. He'll play Cervantes’ Other Side on Friday, January 27, and Saturday, January 28, as part of the venue’s twentieth anniversary. Fruition, Jennifer Hartswick, Natalie Cressman, the Texas Gentlemen, TK & the Holy Know-Nothings, Rainbow Girls, Handmade Moments, Mama Magnolia and Zepp Is Funk are also part of Cervantes' weekend festivities.
Miller moved from West Virginia to Nashville six years ago, and he says that helped shape Depreciated, a record that showcases his influences from artists such as Lucinda Williams, J.J. Cale and Michael Hurley.
“A lot of this last record ended up being on the more personal side. It came on the heels of a bunch of different changes in my life that were pretty drastic for the better. It was a pretty shifty time,” he says. “If other people get some value out of that, that’s meaningful to me. I think even if you’re writing from a different perspective, it’s important to be honest about some details, because that’s what makes the song real, at least to me.”
Sprinkled throughout Miller’s songs are hard truths and moments of hope. In “Motor’s Fried,” he preaches, “Don’t sink the boat just because your motor’s fried,” before reminding us to “hold fast to the people that you love.”
That songwriting prowess is exactly what has struck a chord with listeners.
“When we’re traveling, I get to talk to folks. Some people have expressed some resonance there. That’s a meaningful connection to me. That’s what the whole thing is about: trying to make a connection with another human being," Miller says. "That’s the point of all of this to me."
John R. Miller, 7 p.m. Friday, January 27, and Saturday, January 28, Cervantes' Other Side, 2635 Welton Street. Tickets are $25-$27.50.