Back in 1999, with little fanfare outside their regional headquarters, the V-roys packed it in after a farewell performance on New Year's Eve in Knoxville -- just another blazing show among hundreds for the band. Once twang-rock outlaw Steve Earle's most prized pet project and a '90s fixture on his E-Squared label, the V-roys were, by then, no longer a top priority for the company.
"It kind of reached its apex on a business level -- label-wise, there just wasn't anywhere else to go," says Miller. "E-Squared had its sights set on different things."
Specifically, E-Squared had moved on to Marah, a quartet of Springsteen-obsessed rowhouse rockers from Philadelphia. But in his own way, Miller was moving on, too -- looking back to plow forward, so to speak. Thus Always to Tyrants, Miller's Sugar Hill Records debut, is the product of an intense re-evaluation process for the singer/songwriter -- one that reaches all the way back to his childhood in the Shenandoah Valley town of Swoope (pronounced "Swope"), Va.
"It's supposed to be a concept record but nobody ever gets it," says Miller. "You say concept record and everybody's eyes glaze over and they look at you like you're a fuckin' artiste. I tried to retrace my steps, and use that to try to figure out just where I'm at. Now, I've got to figure out what to do next."
Raised by a mother from the South and a dad from Pennsylvania, Miller always has seen himself as more a product of the former than the latter, sentiments largely dictated by his surroundings. The cultural and geographical pull between the two regions provides Tyrants' palpable dramatic friction. Throw in the edgy, unobtrusive production of R.S. Field (Webb Wilder, John Mayall), and you've got yourself an angsty, artfully compelling letter home.
But the album's achingly personal feel also belies a passionate hold on the past. Throughout Tyrants, Miller enriches his own travails in the coming-of-age department with a reverent storyteller's sweep that stretches as far back as the Civil War. He juxtaposes the tight autobiographical grip of the rugged rockers "Across the Line," "I Made a Mess of This Town" and "Yes I Won't" with the low-key bluegrass acoustics of "Dear Sarah" and "Highland County Boy."
The abrupt downshift from full-blown rock to back-porch strumming is a bit disconcerting at first, until you get wind of the subject matter. "Dear Sarah" uses details from Civil War-era letters written by Miller's great-grandfather to his great-grandmother as the foundation for a meditation on distance and despair. Meanwhile, "Highland County Boy," with its jittery harmonica and fiddle, addresses the harrowing prospect of trading the family homestead for the battlefield from the perspective of a young man heading off to war.
But almost as quickly as Tyrants unplugs, it returns to the fleshier roots rock of Miller's evolving collective, the Commonwealth, which shares billing on the album. They set the pace with fire and finesse until the subdued final track, "Is There Room on the Cross for Me," which Miller dubs a "slacker spiritual."
By necessity, the Commonwealth is a different band today than it was when Tyrants was recorded. In the studio, Miller was able to recruit at will. Among the album's top-notch contributors: bluegrass fiddle ace Tim O'Brien, drummer Gregg Morrow, bassist Mike Brignadello and Austin guitarist/Joe Ely alum David Grissom. These and other A-list players were augmented by Superdrag's John Davis (guitars, backup vocals) and Don Coffey Jr. (drums).
The revamped Commonwealth -- Miller, bassist Jared Reynolds, drummer Jimmy Lester and guitarist Ron McNelley -- is looking to use this Southern road swing to really gel before venturing north.
"The songs are coming together great, but there's no substitute for road time," says Miller. "I've got to get used to it 'cause, man, I'm no musician. I'm just discovering how much freedom I've got, and trying to come to grips with it. It's put up or shut up time, and there's nobody to blame if it sucks."
Scott Miller and the Commonwealth play Smith's Olde Bar Thurs., June 14. $7. Call 404-875-1522.