Dean Miller- 1965
Format: CD – Digital
Artist bios often depict their subject with stars in eyes, guitar in hand and Greyhound ticket in pocket, heading down that highway toward a Platinum horizon.
This one doesn’t.
Because Dean Miller knows that highway already. Success? Sure, he’s not opposed to the idea. If he finds it while heading back home, he wouldn’t object. Truth be told, the world would be better off with more Dean Miller anyway.
But that’s not the point. Miller’s reconfigured his GPS. He’s U-turned and headed back to the source of his story: making music purely for the love of it.
“If you want to get deep about it, as I get older, I care less and less about what people think,” he says. “Look, my father died when he was 56 years old. I’m 54 now, so I’m just trying to do everything I love and only do what I love.”
It is, as Miller says, a blessing and a curse that his father, Roger Miller, was in his day more than just a renowned songwriter and entertainer. More than that, he helped start a revolution in country music, one fueled by eloquent storytelling, informed by modern sensibilities and a willingness if not a compulsion to shatter stereotypes. That is both a legacy to cherish and a hell of a shadow from which to emerge.
“The blessing of my background is that it has allowed me to explore a lot of possibilities,” he says. “On the other side of the coin, it doesn’t matter if I write the greatest song ever written: When I’ve finished, someone will go, ‘Dang me, that’s good! Now sing ‘King Of The Road.’ I understand that; they have memories tied into my dad’s songs. But it’s disheartening because some people never get past that.”
Fortunately, Miller found a way to deal with this, personally and creatively. And it definitely did not involve clambering after stardom and getting bitter as it receded. True, after growing up in L.A. and Santa Fe, he did come to Nashville with a publishing deal and began networking at Number One parties along Music Row. His efforts yielded results, as George Jones, Trace Adkins, Trisha Yearwood, Jamey Johnson and many other headliners recorded his titles. Even so, he soon realized that his life would be better served when unburdened by expectations — a rare epiphany in Music City, to say the least.
Yet he’s done it. All you have to do is listen to 1965, his new self-released album, to hear that by his own measure — the only measure that really matters in music — he’s found a different kind of success, in his ability to reach listeners not through glitz or glamour or even, to be candid, well-crafted bios. All he needs is music written and then presented honestly and emotionally.
Consider the first track and title cut, a time-travel rush through places some of us best remember through Kodaks and yearbooks, “back when country songs were good and love was wild and free.” Then let Dean lead the way to other destinations made vivid in his words and melodies. “River Road” looks back on a moment long gone, “where the blacktop meets the gravel just across the county line,” then concludes, wistfully, “Memories have a way of changing, like some faded old tattoo, reds and yellows disappearing ’til all that’s left behind is blue.”
Elsewhere, on “Los Angelese” we visit a world hidden below freeway overpasses, with “a Coupe de Ville for a king-sized bed” that serves now as home for a starry-eyed actress at the dead end of a dream. On “Cold To The Touch”, a searing blues guitar adds light to a love-lost lament like neon filtered through whiskey.
There’s more, much more, to 1965, ending in a kind of painful optimism on “Undying Flame,” whose dance-floor, honky-tonk fiddles incongruously accompany “a longing and desire only lovers understand. And once you start that fire burning, there’s no turning back.”
All of this is music born from liberation, from Miller’s decision to be true only to himself in his work. For this same reason, he chose to write all 11 tracks alone, without collaborators. “When I write with people, often there’s this push/pull going on,” he explains. “Somebody doesn’t like a line you thought of, or vice versa. I did that for a long time, thinking it would give me a better chance of getting a cut. It was a business decision. But I didn’t want that anymore. I’m past making business decisions. I’m just making my music.”
1965 is also the first album Miller built from top to bottom without any investors. “When you have financial partners attached to a project, they want to be involved in every aspect. That’s understandable; it’s their money. But money doesn’t make you creative, so I didn’t want somebody asking me every few minutes, ‘Why do you need a piano there?’ When the answer is simple: Because I do!”
That’s also why Miller produced 1965 on his own and looked beyond the usual studio crews to put together the band he needed. “I chose people I love, who have worked with me and who get what I’m doing,” he points out. “They’re not ‘cookie-cutter’ musicians who just look out the window while they play the same three chords. These guys really care.”
As a result, the sound and feel of 1965 is a little rough, sometimes a little raucous — deliberately so. “I wanted this to sound like musicians who get together and make songs. It’s a response to the sterilization of music in our drum-loop society. Of course it’s hard to make a record just sitting in a room with everybody playing, but I didn’t want it to sound smooth. It was more important to me that we sound organic.”
Today Miller enjoys a balanced life. When not writing, recording, doing live shows or producing young artists, he pursues his other great passion: dog training. As an official trainer for the Tennessee SPCA and recipient of Nashville Paw Magazine’s Best Trainer award, Miller has helped Sheryl Crow, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris and Kenny Chesney, among other clients, enjoy happier home lives with their furry friends. Additionally, this service reinforces Miller’s commitment to do only work that has meaning for him.
“Dogs just fill me up,” he insists. “When I take a dog that’s been abandoned, that nobody wanted, and I can transform that dog, with each one I’m healing myself and learning more about who I am. So I have two lives that I love very much: music and dogs. Each one supplements the other.”
That’s the way life ought to be, particularly in a world where so many have run out of gas out on the highway to stardom. “I love what a friend of mine said: ‘I’m tired of making my music for an audience of seven: myself, my co-writer, my publisher and the four people he pitches it to before he gives up,” he says, with a smile. “I don’t want to work in that system. I just want to make my songs.”
Like they did, perhaps, in more innocent times. Maybe even in 1965 …