Milan Miller, IBMA 2020 Songwriter of the Year, to Play Lenoir on March 4

Award winner will be among musicians playing in the 25th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase

(Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a series on the 25th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase. Previous articles can be found here).

LENOIR, N.C. – The last quarter century has seen significant changes in the music business. Today, albums are a novelty and CDs virtually unheard of as a result of Digital Music and E-files. Yet, musicians that adapt and are strategic in promoting their music can keep and even expand their audience.

It also helps to be among the best songwriters in the world in your genre.

That is the case for  Milan Miller, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) 2020 Songwriter of the Year. Miller was present at the Christmas Party more than 25 years ago that was the catalyst for the Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase, but moved away before the first one was held, joking, “I heard they were running out of guitar players” in Nashville.

While he didn’t make the first Showcase, he is scheduled to be here for the 25th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase: Heroes and Friends. It will be held at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center here on March 4. It will be the last Showcase to be hosted by Strictly Clean and Decent before they hand the baton to Lenoir musician Andrew Massey, who will be playing in the Showcase with Caldwell County natives Jonathan Doll, Kent “Lefty” Spears as well as Coty Robinett and Wes McCall.

Strictly Clean and Decent (Kay Crouch, Patrick Crouch, and Ron Shuffler, r) are hosting their 25th – and final – Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase

Miller and the other musicians scheduled to perform are part of what Showcase hosts Kay and Patrick Crouch call “The Nashville Connection.” Former Lenoir resident Nancy Posey, now living in Nashville, will serve as emcee. Furthermore, in addition to Miller and his wife Melanie Reeves, Kay and Patrick join two other Nashville-based musicians, Paul and Kristie Bobal to travel and play together in Ireland, where they are known as “The Nashville Six.” As Kay and Patrick explain, the musicians have played together for so long here, there and everywhere that all are connected by the Caldwell County traditional music history and reputation.

Miller shares, “In addition to being such kind souls and good people, I don’t know anyone that does more to promote other musicians the way Patrick and Kay do – to no benefit to them. They’re just great fans of music and kind souls. The Showcase is a prime example of that.”

Miller adds, “Spreading the music of what others are doing is a rare thing.”

He continues, “There are so many great musicians in Caldwell County. It’s kind of striking. They’re some of my dearest friends.” That is quite a compliment when, according to Miller’s website, “In addition to his standout solo recordings, Milan’s songs have been recorded by some of the biggest names in bluegrass, including Balsam Range, Lonesome River Band, Steep Canyon Rangers, Terry Baucom, Tim O’Brien, Buddy Melton, Sam Bush, Missy Armstrong, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, the Grascals and many others.” It continues, that in addition to the IBMA 20202 Songwriter of the Year award, “Along the way he has scored thirty-three number one songs in the genre, over three dozen others that have graced the top twenty, (and) two nominations for Song of the Year.”

He stays relevant by simply continuing to write and sing, but also to adapt to the new music business model. His latest work, “Between the Rhythm and Rhyme” is an example of changing with the times, reveals Miller. Yet, there is familiarity in the digital world. “In the bluegrass world a lot of the way albums are being approached is flipped back to the ways things were oriented in the 1970s and 80s.” He explains, “It’s very single oriented. People are waiting to put out albums. I have six radio singles on that record that have been out over the last year or so.” While he admits, “The business has shifted,” he adds, “People want to consume.” The key is finding them. Based on his success, Miller has.

When we talked in late January, his song “Distractions” was the number four song for the week and month, according to Bluegrass Today magazine. 

He seems to take it in stride. “Those are really nice things to be part of. One of the humbling things is, I lost that award four times before I won (the IBMA Songwriter of the Year award). It’s much more fun to win.” He also credits others with his success. “I’m competent. Not excellent. Much of what I’ve had happen, has been the result of the goodwill of other people.”

He also points out that success requires constant work. “It’s not about writing one song. It’s about writing a lot of songs. It’s about learning the concepts of your instruments, about learning to make yourself useful.” He shares, “Roger Miller was asked, ‘Do you ever look at airplay charts to know what is popular?’ He replied, ‘Yes. All the time. I’m looking for a hole.’ His message was to find your own place.”

His current work also includes a single, “Trout Don’t Live in Ugly Spaces.” He offers, “There are few things in life that I’m worse at than fishing. But it’s just about getting outside. Trout don’t live in ugly places. When that comes on Bluegrass radio, it’s like nothing else getting played.” Yet, he cautions, “You’re also taking a chance trying to fill that hole.”

Yet, telling stories in Appalachia isn’t all that risky, in particular in Caldwell County, where storytelling through music is and has been commonplace since the first European settlers arrived here in the 18th Century. “Storytelling is part of the handbook, at least in large portions of what I do. If you want to be involved in bluegrass songwriting, you have to do that. It’s fun for me. I try to live in this world, trying to make it sound like forever.” But, he adds, “Sometimes I might use a more modern technique, maybe something people will want to sing along with. A lot of it comes natural to me. It’s relaxing. It’s where my head would rather be.”

His goal, he shares, “Is to elicit some kind of emotional response. It could be tapping your foot, clapping along, singing along, or having it tug on your heart strings to where you just get inside of a character that people would not have considered.”

Milan Miller. Photo credit: Jeff Smith

Miller’s primary instrument is the guitar. He says he has “a functional ability on mandolin, bass guitar, and piano.” He also dabbles on the banjo and fiddle but says he is not prepared to play them in public. “My experience in Nashville is, it’s nice to know a million hot licks, but it’s important to know when not to play them.” He continues, “The biggest hurdle is knowing where your place is. If you make the band sound good, the mission is accomplished and everybody wins. Simple is always the best answer.”

The concept of the Showcase excites him. “I love to collaborate with local musicians. I just get to hang out and learn. I’m just really looking forward to being back in Caldwell County, seeing everyone and playing a little music. I love it there. Everyone is part of my heart. I appreciate Patrick and Kay asking me along. They are heroes and friends.”

A finale from a previous Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase

To learn more about the 25th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase: Heroes and Friends, contact the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center box office at 828-726-2407. Learn more about the meal available before the performance.

© Michael M. Barrick 2023.

Note: If you enjoy this article and want to read additional forthcoming articles about the 25th Annual Caldwell Traditional Showcase, including features on the individual musicians, or you wish to learn more about the arts, the environment, and vital topics affecting Appalachia, please subscribe at the top right hand corner of the page. There is no charge for subscribing.

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