He slipped into town in the night accompanied by a pack of dogs. Or maybe he was accompanying them? He hunkered down somewhere natural, somewhere obvious where you wouldn’t notice, somewhere down the bar from you. He is the man with the guitar case and paisley shirt who seems not to walk but to float just ever so slightly above the pavement, those heavy brown boots just dragging easy in the dust. Cigarette behind the ear, grin somewhere behind the eyes. These old nails clenched in his teeth he’s going to use to fix his heart to yours. He’s got dirt from near every state smudged on his jeans.
Some folks have to leave homes and hunt for their courage and their good lives, and that hunt is what they will write their songs and their poems about forever. In the historic eastern panhandle of West Virginia where he lives, John R. Miller’s quiet, easy-going kind of courage and determination to be alive is infectious. Maybe he goes around sprinkling it here and there like seeds into the grass, into the wooden floors and barstools in the taverns (there’s only three in town). Maybe he hides it in the parking lots, around bonfire rings, or down at the bases of tall street lamps. Yea, of course, you can take some if you need to: everyone needs a little courage to stay and be still. That right there’s the treasure of the Bard King of Jefferson County, WV.
John R. Miller’s friends and musical contemporaries could tell you all about it and more. Like, for instance, his knack for twining, in ways not at all overused, internal places, like the lonely American heart, with exterior places, such as highways and parking lots, or bars at closing time (where his songs so often take place). Or, say, about his obvious ability to draw straight from the American folk canon and forge original analogies and melodies from therein – his songs are ever the opposite of tired. J.R. Miller’s work is distinctly American, sure, and it could sit comfortably with all those other works you might think of. His influences are not covert, and when you notice those influences what you’ll hear is mindful admiration, never leaning lazy. With John, you just get the song in its perfect natural form, which is to say good, slow, earnest, real, in line with tradition, uncommon, beautiful, loud, fast, ugly, hard, easy, tender. John’s songs save themselves from the embarrassment of being themselves.
This writer wishes he could have the same salvation sometimes.
This writer could (and tries) to learn a thing or two from John Miller.
If the written word is a means to grab onto some unspoken thought, record it, and make it verbal, then the written word is meant to be read aloud. So maybe what a song does is hook those words back around to the beginning, tethering them to the ineffable place in the mind, or soul, or wherever it is, from where they came about in the first place. So maybe what a song does to words is reapply the primordial ooze of emotion and synapse from where those words first shivered out. Maybe that’s why a sad song reminds me to be sad, even though I can’t remember the words to it, or the way a song’s lyrics taken out of context and, for instance, posted as a status update, seem so corny, unnecessary and flat.
I’m no musician, that much is clear if you know me, and, I don’t know maybe you can tell that from this essay. And as much as I am enamored with – oh, I don’t know, the melodies, the harmonies, the way the rhythm of the notes plucked on the strings of his guitar conjure memories of walking with my old dog Willie down the street some summer evening – it’s nothing about the tune of the tunes which inspires me, that I find so specifically inspiring and troubling, electrifying and remarkable. More so even than the music itself, it’s his phrasing, his sentence structure and his lyricism. For example in “Garden Song,” I could sink to the bottom of a storm drain, or a well in a yard of perfect green. I know sinking like I know swimming, I wasn’t cut out for easy living. I’m going to burn the biggest trail you and your friends have ever seen // My roots are in my boots and they’re taking me along with them wherever they might go, and in “Service Engine,” She’s the rail car and I’m just the track.
I don’t know for sure how best to make my case here, but I can say that there are plenty of lesser songwriters out there in the world. They rhyme where they shouldn’t, and they don’t where they should. They ride a melody but say something dumb, and beautiful words are always drowned under shit. All I know is John Miller is the real thing, and his work is tremendous the way a river is tremendous next to a trickle, the way sunrise is tremendous next to just about anything else.
Here’s a few words that get repeated in his songs:
I suggest keeping your ears to the ground for the next time John’s coming to town. Here’s a list of some of the acts he’s a part of:
John R. Miller
John R. Miller and the Engine Lights
Hey John, I love you. I’ll see you soon!
~This essay was written (read: attempted, poorly) in the style of the master Tom Robbins~
Howard Parsons is a writer from West Virginia. He is a graduate of The New School MFA Program. He runs the Black Bear Club reading series, based in Morgantown, WV, which can be found on Facebook and on Twitter, and can be listened to here, here, and right here.
John R. Miller is a musician from West Virginia. He is probably sitting on the barstool next to yours, but if he isn’t, and he isn’t sitting on the one next to that one either, you can find him here.
The Black Bear Club, Vol. 3
The third inaugural reading of the Black Bear Club, a Morgantown, West Virginia-based reading series hosted by our dear Dr. Howard Parsons, featuring: Denise Giardina, Andrea Null, and Keegan Lester.
Denise Giardina’s novels have won the American Book Award, the Lillian Smith Award for fiction, and the Boston Book Review fiction prize. Her roots run deep in the coal mines of Appalachia and stories about coal miners, companies and unions are at the center of two of her books. Her words may be fiction, but they describe the true experiences of underground coal mining in West Virginia.
Andrea Null is a schoolteacher in Charleston, West Virginia. Her writing has appeared in the Oxford American, Shenandoah, Souvenir, Fanzine, and the West Virginia Encyclopedia. Common Whores & Midwives, her forthcoming first collection, is anxiously awaited by literally everyone everywhere.
Keegan Lester is the poetry editor and a cofounder of the journal Souvenir. His work has been published in or is forthcoming from: The Journal, CutBank, Sink Review, Sun Dog Lit, The Atlas Review, Phantom Books and The Adroit, among others. He earned his MFA from Columbia University and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. His favorite poem he ever wrote, he wrote for his grandmother when he was in the third grade, and she framed it and hung it on a wall in her house in Morgantown.