By Joe Hooten • Contributing writer
If your family is like mine, we have unspoken rules regarding the amount and duration of holiday music played in our house. The rule is simple: the music comes out the day after Thanksgiving and then promptly put away the day after Santa delivers the goods. We hardly vary the theme during this intense month of celebration as it sets the mood, and if you have kids, you know they love it. Holiday tunes, not to mention the first smell of Western North Carolina fir, get me ready for the eggnog and the insane amount of wrapping that lie ahead.
I’ve always admired artists that take on the Christmas album challenge. It’s a big one because you’re going up against classic holiday heavyweights like Nat King Cole, The Rat Pack, Burl Ives and Elvis. Every year there are worthy additions to yule-time mix tapes, CDS, and playlists, and this year, Knoxville’s Scott Miller has released “Christmas Gift” a seven-song EP of folk-laden cheer that could easily qualify as your new favorite Christmas album. Comprised of original material, unique covers (Neil Young, Roger Miller, John Prine) and enjoyable renditions of some holiday classics, Miller’s endeavor shares the spirit of Christmas and extends his prominence as East Tennessee’s finest songwriter.
Miller, who plays regularly in WNC and East Tennessee and was an original member of the V-Roys, recently spoke with The Smoky Mountain News about “Christmas Gift” and the upcoming holidays.
SMN: Is the Christmas album-concept a daunting challenge?
SM: It’s only daunting in that there are but a few “classic” Christmas songs that still get played. Some songs are re-reorded by other artists, but really, is there another version of “White Christmas” besides Bing Crosby’s? What about Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song”? (Ok, I’m dating myself AND my parents here.) How about “Run, Run Rudolph” by Chuck Berry? “Snoopy and the Red Baron” by the Royal Guardsmen? “I’m Mr. Heat Miser?” from the Rakin/Bass movie? So when I think about my CD and the songs and performances in rotation with or in somebody’s iPod playlist with those songs, that‘s the part that is daunting. Otherwise I love Christmas. That’s easy.
SMN: How did you select the songs that appeared on the EP?
SM: Self-appointed A&R man for F.A.Y. Records, Johnny Wright-wing, chose the songs. He did ask me for a suggestion or two, but I don’t think he really listened as he was on his cell phone the whole time we were meeting trying to organize a Barbara Streisand bluegrass album to be released in Canada.
SMN: “The Kingdom Has Come” is an original of yours that’s been around for a few years. What inspired you to incorporate RB Morris’ spoken word?
SM: I approached RB Morris when I had (the cliché`) idea of having him read the verses from The Bible (Luke) that everybody reads. When I played him the song, he jumped up from his kitchen chair, disappeared into his office and came back with an old faded copy of “Hard Knox Review,” a literary newspaper he helped publish years ago. In one edition was the T.S. Eliot poem “Journey of the Magi.” I left him the song as I had it and he chose verses and lines; he really mapped the whole thing out, all the way to a manger in Bethlehem ...
SMN: “Christmas in Prison” is a great Prine song. Is that you on piano? What songs did you play piano on?
SM: I have been known to tickle the old ivories, and did on some of the album, but Peggy Hambright played on this track. That is such a great song, and Prine’s performance is well, iconic. Using piano on this song specifically was my idea so it didn’t compete with his, or even get near it. As if it could!
SMN: How did you get into the Christmas spirit during the recording of “Christmas Gift”?
SM: We roasted chestnuts, drank a lot and argued with our families.
SMN: Neil Young and John Prine are two songwriters you cover often. Why do they both resonate with you personally?
SM: Well, John Prine, in my opinion, is the poet laureate of the United Damn States of America. His songs, or even specific lines, resonate with me like no other singer, songwriter, poet, author or artist. I’m not the only one. And when I have the opportunity to introduce someone to his music, be it a concert or recording, I have yet to find one person, regardless of race, creed, color, background or planet, that can’t find at least one thing in them that makes them stop and take a breath and feel like that guy just read their mail ....
Neil Young I have always loved because his songs, and he does this, can be performed solo or full out rocked with a band and still come across to the listener. I like to think I can do that too. (Hell, I know I can do that too.) And his writing, while from a different place than Prine and his songs are structured so differently, use imagery that resonates with me as well. More than a few folks have said they didn’t think “Star of Bethlehem” was a Christmas song. But it’s about “hope” (to me, anyway) and isn’t that at least what part of Christmas is about?
SMN: Can Christmas be saved from commercialism?
SM: Pay me some money and I’ll answer this question.
SMN: What was a typical Miller Christmas like growing up in Virginia?
SM: As I’ve tried to impart to people many times, I grew up so different than most people of my generation. My parents have been married over 50 years. I grew up in the middle of nowhere on a cattle farm in a farming community called Swoope in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Christmas was the one holiday when both sets of grandparents would come in and all my siblings. I lived for it. The setting was idyllic. That being said, it was probably a lot like everyone else’s Christmas: family getting on each other’s nerves, over-eating and my mother bemoaning the fact that we had too many presents while the world suffered. And by the way, cows don’t take holidays. They don’t care if it’s your birthday or our Lord and Savior’s birthday: they have to get fed. So we worked. That’s how we do. That’s how we did.
SMN: “Old Toy Trains,” the old Roger Miller tune, makes me think of my childhood. Were trains apart of your childhood?
SM: My grandfather had a train set up in his basement, but oddly enough we never set it up around the tree like you see in the movies or TV. In the early 70’s, farmers weren’t doing so good and my folks didn’t have a lot of money. But my favorite Christmas present I ever got was a cheap dime store bag of cowboys and Indians that my dad set up on the living room floor in full battle while I slept.
Scholars will tell you Christmas was a pagan holiday incorporated by Christianity. That’s fine with me. God is where you find him, and sometimes you find him where you put him. Belief in Jesus is up to you, but families stopping to even hope for peace on earth and good will? That’s universal. And people may try to put a price tag on that but its always going to be free.
SMN: What can we expect from Scott Miller in 2011?
SM: Some light dusting of winter touring followed by a spring growth of new material. I hope. Merry Christmas, one and all.
Scott Miller will be performing his annual Christmas shows at the Down Home in Johnson City, Tenn., on Dec.10-11. For more information on “Christmas Gift” visit: www.thescottmiller.com