John R. Miller and the Engine Lights-The Trouble You Follow
If you’ve heard of John R. Miller, you’ve probably heard that he’s an amazing songwriter. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re just not paying attention. The Hedgesville, W.Va., native has made enough of a name for himself to cover two or three careers at this point. Whether it's Miller’s work in The Fox Hunt, Prison Book Club, as a solo artist, or as a side man, the chances are that if you like West Virginia music, you have bobbed your head to something he’s played on.
The Trouble You Follow—Miller’s new Emperor Records release with his band, The Engine Lights—stands very well alongside the rest of his body of work. The album finds Miller’s familiar vocals paired with a largely acoustic band. Knowing that, you might expect something like The Fox Hunt: a string band with single-mic-harmony vocals. Miller’s idiom here is both distinct and noticeably more personal. It makes sense that several of the songs offered on The Trouble You Follow had prior lives in the repertoire of Miller’s straight-ahead rock band, Prison Book Club.
The Engine Lights are yet a whole other animal from that band as well. Stylistically, the music on the new album is there to support Miller’s ample lyrical gift. In this respect, The Trouble You Follow immediately brings to mind the most recent John Prine record, The Tree of Forgiveness. Both men are more than capable of presenting their songs with only a guitar. An artist who does that for a lengthy amount of time, however, almost inevitably find himself/herself playing with a band again.
The Trouble You Follow does well to start with the song “Holy Dirt.” Miller finds transcendence in the grime of an imperfect world. The song embraces this world and recognizes that it’s vital to the creative process in all of our lives. We find the pieces needed for rebirth in the chaos of decay and imperfection.
This rule also sometimes applies to our personal relationships. The soil metaphor surfaces again in the very next song, “Red Eyes.” Miller sings:
"I’m drinkin’ motor oil, cursin’ at the settin’ sun,
Hopin’ I find better soil before my day of work is done."
“How It Feels in the Light” seems light and sweet, with a singing pedal steel and mandolin, but Miller brings it back down to earth with a pained and wistful lyric:
"Pissed off, broke, and hammered, willfully confused."
There is a timeless quality to the aforementioned track, seeming like it could have been recorded at any point over the last 50 years, save for the fact that Miller’s language would have been seen as unbearably coarse in times gone by. Today, we are instead touched by the honesty and frankness of his delivery.
Included on The Trouble You Follow, “Been Here Too Long,” “Lights of the City,” and “Too Much Livin’” were all Prison Book Club songs. They are presented here with the same energy, but they have been transformed from Tom Petty-informed rock into acoustic tracks that are warmer and more friendly than laid back and watered down.
“The Wheel” provides a welcome contrast to the rest of the album. Though slightly bitter, the lyrics are still resolute. Miller performs solo here, biting off syllables, with only a hint of sorrow. He sings:
"You swallow trouble like a bitter pill; you’re like a river with a chemical spill.
Time makes it disappear, and it always will, ‘cause you should still wipe the dirt from your window sill...
I’ll wake you up, I’ll dry your tears, I’ll be the wheel if you ain’t afraid to steer. Don’t be afraid of leavin’ me."
The album wraps up with “Strung Out,” which seems to be about realizing the band you’re in isn’t as big a deal to the world as it is to you. Here, Miller seems wearier and more sorrowful than on any other track of the album. No doubt, people who spend their lives making music will understand this song. It’s a hard life, one usually marked with disappointment, even for those who are as gifted as Miller.
With The Trouble You Follow, John R. Miller and the Engine Lights have given listeners yet another musical incarnation, and while I’m sure it won’t be his last, it is one of his finest offerings yet.
Their album is available on Friday, August 31st.