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By Josh Terry

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JC MILLER has always been a searcher. The Southern California-based guitarist and songwriter has long been driven and inspired by vintage Americana. He makes songs that feel at home in neon-lit diners, long highway drives, desert expanses, and sun-soaked small towns. It’s music for wanderers. Equally inspired by timeless artists like Neil Young, Leon Russell, and the Band as much as the unfussy but potent prose of writers like Larry McMurtry, Ernest Hemingway, and Cormac McCarthy, his songs boast a Southern-fried edge and a transportive authenticity. While he’s spent most of his career as a sideman and one-time composer in the advertising world for clients like Coca-Cola, Nike, and Levi’s, he’s unabashedly true to himself by making music for himself. Collaborating with iconic producer Marty Rifkin, his songs are exercises in the journey to self-discovery.

For Miller, he can evoke a grounded sense of place unlike most of his peers: here, there are uncovered truths to be mined in songs about his family’s history as well as his country’s. Born in Michigan to parents who were both English professors, Miller was raised in northern California but was always fascinated by the Sun Belt part of the country. There was a mystery, a beauty, and a familiarity in the southern part of the country that always inspired him. “My father comes from a kind of mysterious family from the south all through the South,” says Miller. “Vernon, Florida, Bogalusa, Louisiana, Biloxi, Mississippi, Denton, Texas, and more. I noticed that it was all in the Sun Belt of America. I started really getting into it and researching it more for my songwriting.” When he decided to start writing songs for himself, he looked inward and asked, “why am I going there? Why do I keep coming back to this part of the country? What do I love about it here?” Music became about rediscovering his family’s history through traversing America and in turn becoming a source of unearthing insight about himself. 

Just take “Sun Belt Stories,” the strikingly autobiographical song from his 2022 album Southern Buckthorn. The track serves as a tribute to Miller’s grandmother Lavinia who died before he was born but he credits her as the reason he was so drawn to music since she spent her life as a piano and violin teacher. Over a lush, twangy, and harmonica-filled arrangement, Miller croons, “I never knew you / You didn’t get to know me / Ghostly guru / Might have got on famously.” In the song, he thanks her for influencing him and promises to tell his “Sun Belt Stories / to whoever is listening.” While Miller has been remarkably prolific over the past decade, this song works as a thesis statement for his tirelessly curious and earnest output so far. “My dad’s name was JC, his dad’s name was JC,” he says. “I feel like I am representing another generation of storytellers. I’m trying to paint a picture through music where the lens is focused on the deeply personal but it can also be universal.” 

JC Miller’s catalog is the product of his partnership and friendship with producer Marty Rifkin. When the two met, the legendary musician and engineer who’s worked with so many musical stalwarts (Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Glen Campbell) was shocked Miller wasn’t from the south and encouraged him to continue exploring that sonic territory. “Marty is just totally amazing,” says Miller. “What’s amazing is on 99% of the recordings, it’s just the two of us as we both are multi-instrumentalists.” You can hear echoes of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Johnson on songs like “Lonestar Tumbleweed” while Neil Young and the Allman Brothers are evoked in the expansive “Searching for Santa Fe.” Miller explains, “I’m not trying to hide my sources: I’m trying to add footnotes, carry on the southern and western, southwestern frame of mind.” 

JC Miller is looking for timelessness over virtuosity. He’s always writing but his goal is always intentionality and quality as he traverses his own histories and the roots of Americana. “When I did music for hire, I took pride in professionalism, and I could deliver a perfectly suited theme or recordings with a certain historical patina, and the clients were happy,” he says. “Now, when I’m doing it for myself, it’s a lot scarier, in a way but it’s a lot more liberating.” With these songs, he’s carrying on a tradition of American songwriting and creating guitar literature that is never ephemeral, evoking a classic sense of place and historical context. “I’m a humble student,” says Miller. “I’m hoping that in my reaching for those musical touchstones and inspirations, it’s a footnote of history living in the present. This is a universal language that continues with or without me.” 

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London Peaky Talks to Julian Cash Miller


HIS songs summon images of fading sun-soaked desert towns under bright blue skies, of drifters, mavericks, magicians, and card sharps. Haunted men desperately attempting to escape their past, in search of an ultimately elusive, brighter future. He’s the epitome of the nomadic guitarist as gunslinger…


London Peaky: You were raised in Northern California, and appear to be partly inspired by the likes of Neil Young and Ernest Hemingway. But you don’t hide those influences do you, you’re not bothered about opening up and sharing them with your listeners?


JC Miller: Absolutely not — I am always happy to credit my inspirations and touchstones. In fact, quite the opposite, I love turning people on to the 70’s Southern Rock sound, or the hard-bitten text moods of Cormac McCarthy, or Leon Russell’s piano and organ work, Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar mojo… All of my music, in a sense, is an homage to my heroes. When people say they hear Rick Danko of The Band or The Allman Brothers, or Lowell George of Little Feat (btw also from California), it’s all to the good! It’s a deep river and I love swimming in it. The trick is to do something new with it and that’s where I like to craft vocal and lyrics against soundtrack — “what does this music tell me, what is it telegraphing?” A lot of times the music comes first and then I write down what it sounds like to me. “Where is this taking place? When is this taking place?” It’s a back-and-forth that’s really energizing; there’s lots of potential to build upon the guitar literature and poetry combinations created to date… 


Parents were both English Professors – guess that must go some way to explaining your love of words?


Yeah, pops was linguistics and mom was Victorian literature, so both the structure of language, and the romantic poets… Ironically, I actually hated books and words when I was kid which is why I started communicating through my guitar at a young age. Of course later, when I was not just trying to overthrow my parents hahaha, I realized that poetry and fiction are super valuable tools, especially when crossed with melody and harmony and rhythm — music essentially… I try not to get too clever and literate with it though. It’s critical to me to be accessible and not too erudite or fancy ladd-ish. Marty and I refer to it all the time in the studio as bonehead (a high compliment btw), which we strive for… I like things to feel inevitable rather than arbitrary… and I like to craft the “amusement ride quotient of a sound track or soundscape”… Therefore getting too hung up on words, or even meaning for that matter, can hurt or hinder the overall feeling. In short, not too dumb, not too smart, tell it like it is, nothing too fancy, try new stuff, look to the greats from the past, and create a new pastiche that goes down smooth — but a little but rough and human around the edges hahaha… it’s shaping form with sound and attaching words that carry meaning of some kind… but since it’s highly personal, I have to make sure it’s universal on another level… 


You have described your father’s family as ‘mysterious.’ Why is that?


A mystery to me… I never met my father’s family because they were gone before I was born. My mom was not gifted with music and my dad could whistle along perfectly with the complex melodies of Mahler and Sibelius… Only later did I realize how darn musical that guy was… to be able to do that, wow!… His mom, my grandma I never met, Livinia, was a violin, piano, and music theory instructor, so I am guessing that’s where my music-mania came from. When I first started up with Marty, he said my style was from the south. It’s been a journey of self-discovery, plumbing the depths of my pop’s family’s past and the music that comes out of me… some things to reconcile with, some things to embrace…  But I still have all this southern style music in me even though I was never exposed to it directly…


How much truth is in your songs, am I correct to assume many are autobiographical?


I mean, it’s all autobiographical in a way, but also I try to keep it universal so it’s not too specific and hopefully everyone can relate to it. I love to write about places in general, creeks and streams, mountains, the desert, houses… specific places, Terlingua, Texas, Bogalusa, Louisiana, where my dad JC was from. I am JC III. The original JC was from Vernon Florida… These are my backdrops for my soundscapes… also animals, bears, snakes, raccoons, swordfish… plants and trees, Southern Buckthorn … anything but relationships hahaha which is territory that seems to be already covered … also history and historical figures, it’s all about creating a mood. A setting. America, the past, or now. The Sun Belt, my family or yours. I’m always nostalgic for the bygone eras… the old cars, vintage guitars, Tiki bars, driving open roads at night… dilapidation, loss… paintings — Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks says it all for me… movies… John Ford, Anthony Mann, Westerns, Technicolor, Film Noir, Silver Screen. My identity is made out of theses tributaries from a giant river… 


How did the partnership with Marty Rifkin come about?


It’s funny because I was working with Marty on a commercial thing and he kept commenting about where was this southern style music coming from out of a California boy? and we decided to explore it further… As we dove deeper into my pop’s family’s past, it turned out that my way of playing was very “(Shreveport, Louisiana) Texas-style” — very Southern/Sun Belt-centric… It’s just how I hear things and how I play… The guitar hammer-ons and pull-offs — the vocal nature of the guitar, is inspired by Duane Allman, Allen Collins, Dickey Betts, Toy Caldwell  (I play with my thumb like he did — I hardly ever use a pick in my right hand), Ed King, Gary Rossington, so many OMG… The Atlanta Rhythm Section, Dr. John… It’s a Swampland-Sun Belt thing at the end of the day… and when I traced my dad’s family and their travels and home-fronts, it was pretty much a straight line across Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and of course Southern California… I just started writing again, and Marty is super talented obviously, and it’s a lot of fun working together, so I figured if I just keep writing songs we can keep on recording them because there is nowhere I would rather be than recording tunes with Marty! We love the art of the craft. We live for the tone of the amp, the swing of the beat… His skill set is absolutely nuts — producer, engineer, and all the tech stuff I am hopeless with… Marty as a player, OMG — bass, pedal steel, dobro, mandolin… He’s the absolute best and I feel so fortunate our paths crossed… We record in the old Beach Boys’ studio and Marty says Glen Campbell sat with him in the chair I sit in –just like back in the day when he was a session player with The Beach Boys. Anyone that wants to have their jaw drop on the ground should google “Glen Campbell guitar solo” and see what comes up. Total insanity…

I remember him on Hee Haw with Playmobil hair, kinda squaresville, when in reality he was kinda the greatest thing ever: singer, guitar slinger… In short Marty and I have the same heroes and we both refuse to repeat the past — we have to create something new, add to the narrative, the collective power of these great musicians and writers that have come before us… if we copy somebody or something else, there is no point in doing it… the exploration and experimentation, always on the verge of failure, hahaha, is our go-to mode… 


You worked in ‘advertising.’ Can you expand on that a little?


Back in the 90’s, which was the early days of digital, we had some sampling technology for pre-pro, but we would also overdub acoustic and analog instruments, and mix on a 24-track console. I composed music (always instrumental, never jingles or singing) for TV spots for all the big brands, including Nike, Coca-Cola, Levi’s, Chevrolet, Chrysler, basically all the cars, all the beers, hahaha… It was a time and a place that doesn’t exist anymore. In retrospect I realize how lucky I was to have been there. It was a lot of fun and set me up for my passion projects, creating soundscapes and writing songs, and then combining the two… People make fun of my seven-minute songs hahaha… I don’t blame them truthfully… But on the other hand, a friend said about Notebooks from the West — “7:42 and you don’t want it to end” hahaha… I had four spots on the Super Bowl one year,  which is funny because it’s anonymous. I write all kinds of music, from metal to jazz, ethereal underscore to bluegrass, but my obsession is the staying power and timelessness that was created in the 1970s in the American South. Lynyrd Skynyrd — saw them in ’73, or thereabouts, open up for The Who. They finished with Free Bird and we all went home before The Who came on — and my friends and I have never been the same since… Leon Russell, The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Little Feat, the list goes on and on… It’s just stunning to me the universality of this art that came from such a specific place and time — it kinda blows my mind!


You’re dropping a single every three weeks, every THREE WEEKS!, this year. What are/were your thoughts behind that plan? It’s an insane schedule! 


This is basically our production schedule. So we will get backed up if we don’t keep ‘em dropping… We started out making albums, but people don’t really listen to music that way anymore (although I still do) but the platforms make it so ya get more momentum from singles than albums so that’s where we ended up. I am a prolific writer and I am a lifelong studio rat, and the songs are meant to engage each other — the topics, the titles, the riffs, the beats… I hope it washes over people in a positive way. I want the catalog to be unified and consistent, to develop and advance certain themes and conflicts of the American West and American South…


You were a session musician. What type of stuff did you work on, can you tell me about any of the artists you worked with, what did you take from them/the sessions, good and bad?


All kinds of stuff… commercials, movies, albums, fashion videos, TV shows… The Country Music Awards, Carly Simon, Steve WinwoodDeneice Williams, Natalie Cole, tons of others… 


I played guitar, keyboards, bass, produced, wrote, arranged, basically anything to stay busy in music! Steve Winwood is the most elegant musician I have ever played with. The innate funk and glacial classiness combo is madness! I am influenced by that time to this day. Other engagements were not as inspiring but I always learned everything I could on the job. No nightmare stories I can think of except maybe getting booed off the stage opening up for Thin Lizzy at the Cow Palace…


If you had to choose one song and one album of yours to give people a taste of your music, what would they be?


I would have to say Laredo Journal would be the single and Southern Buckthorn would be the album… I did a playlist lately for Spotify called Texas Tales that has ten songs about Texas! hahaha… But I try to have it be that you can dive in anywhere, for as much or little as you want, and the musical DNA is still present at any level… I’ve narrowed it down so I can do it justice — American subject matter. Pretty much always the Sun Belt zone… Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida… I like to try to paint pictures with sound, create images with words… honor what came before, but set my ears and eyes towards the new, the newly shaped combination that still feels tried and true, like an old catcher’s mitt hahaha —  basically “vintage on arrival” hahaha

JC Miller Interview with Indie Music Discovery

Where are you from and how do you describe your style of music?

I was born in Detroit, but I grew up in California in the Bay Area. I would describe my music as Americana music from the end of the road. The road being Route 66 — which ends at the edge of the continent in Santa Monica where I’ve been making music for 20 years. Americana, but more specifically Southern Rock. There’s a lot of different influences from country to rock and everything in between, but the style emerges from my family’s Southern roots. The Southern style of my playing and writing is what made me look beyond my own environment to try to trace the origins. I have always been under the spell of Leon Russel, Levon Helm and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among many others. I love all styles of music, but I’ve really tried to build an American narrative told through guitar.

How did you get here? As in, what inspired or motivated you to take on this journey through music and the music biz?

It chose me, I didn’t choose it. I  worked in the music business as a composer-for-hire for film and television for decades. And now this is the music where I get to decide when the music is done (instead of being told when it’s done by a client) so it’s a highly personal labor of love. In the music-for-hire world, guitar wasn’t the voice of choice a lot of the time. I did the whole programmed keyboards and MIDI and synthesizers and virtual production thing… So for this journey I wanted to go all organic and keep it simple: guitar, piano, bass, organ. All wood and strings with barely any synthesizers to speak of. When I’m left to my own instincts, what turns out to be my natural inclination is to make music that is inflected with a Southern style and so this project has organically become a travel log where I’ve searched for lost ancestry reconciled through music. My grandmother Livinia Poythress was a piano and violin teacher from Bogalusa, Louisiana. This is my most likely guess to where the music comes from. It’s interesting to channel creativity from unknown sources and let the song take you where it will. 

How does your latest project compare/contrast with your previous release(s)? Were you setting out to accomplish anything specific, follow a specific theme, or explore different styles of creation?

The latest project is this five-album odyssey that I’ve been writing for years. It starts in the West, where I am from, and ventures into the South, a place I haven’t spent a lot of time in, but have always felt a connection to. The Notebooks from the West Trilogy includes Notebooks from the West, Baja Bohemian and Strawberry Canyon. The central theme of this Trilogy is what I see all around me from where I live, in Southern California. The two-volume, Southern-centric set that I’m recording right now will include Delta Waves and Southern Buckthorn. These really feel like they complete the musical journey from the West to the South. I try to kind of go where the music wants to take me and interfere as little as possible with creativity when it’s flowing. It was really something to see that the music could fit neatly into geographic categories. The early records felt like I was exploring and finding a voice — literally, since I hadn’t done much singing — and kind of testing the limits and it was really great when it started to fit into these slots. I feel like the early stuff was a testing ground to see what was possible and it was cool to write into the various themes. 

Name the biggest challenge you faced as a creative during these unprecedented times? How did you adapt? How have you kept the creative fires burning during all this?

Strangely, it was the lockdown that really allowed all of this to happen. It was definitely lonely and isolating at times, but it really forces you to focus without distraction. I was looking for a block of time to execute this project and bring it to fruition. I’m not really that disciplined about practicing or writing, but when I knew I would have a chunk of time it was fun to leave demos unedited until they were already completed. Then I started organizing them by region, theme, topic, or whatever it was. So in an unexpected way, the vacuum that was created is the thing that finally made me do this. 

What was the last song you listened to?

Still Learning How to Crawl” by Daniel Lanois. 

Which do you prefer? Vinyl? 8-tracks? Cassettes? CDs? MP3s? Streaming platforms?

As long as the music is good, I’m not too particular about the delivery system!

Where is the best place to connect with you and follow your journey?

Check out my website, jcmillermusic.com and follow me on Spotify & Twitter (@JC_Miller_Music). 

I really appreciate Your time. Anything else before we sign off? 

I just feel really fortunate to be part of such a strong Indie music community where artists support each other instead of tearing each other down. Making music is like feeding people or planting trees— it sustains energy rather than depleting it, it’s part of the culture and civilizing. As Amy Winehouse said, “Music is the only thing that will give and give and not take.”

Special thanks to Executive Producer Gaby Doré and Music Producer Marty Rifkin

Also big thanks to my ancestors I never met and Ava Doré, Mario de Lopez, Pablo Aguilar, Lynn Pickwell, Eduardo “The Tank” Tancredi, Gabe Witcher, Henry Boyd, Sam Boyd, Ryan Corey, Alfredo Gonzales, John Hawkins, Heidi Ortiz, John Heiden, Justin Jampol, Christophe Loiron, Simon Andrews, Melanie Andrews, Jim and Marianne Fox, Marvin Dueñas & Walter Giordani

Mike Bouchér talks to JC Miller 

You have been killing it with song releases. What song do you think is your best and why?

Laredo Journal comes to mind. I am always trying to create a soundtrack that captures a specific American place or idea. It is all about mood and environment. I have spent a lot of time on the road across the Sun Belt area, the southwest and south. My dad’s family is from there so Texas and that whole region is romanticized for me in my mind. Laredo Journal is a very personal song – plus I had a lot of fun ripping (literally) on the keyboard bass on that one. I also feel like Lone Star Tumbleweed really cracks the code on my Americana vision. Searching for Santa Fe is really all about wanting to be in another time and place. Basically I am a 20th Century man trapped in Century 21 haha. That’s what’s cool about music is its ability to transport you. With music in the center of your life there is so much you can transcend. 

If you could do a collaboration with ANY artist – mainstream or indie – alive or passed who would it be?

Leon Russell hands down. Just his whole vibe and musicianship and deep soul really moves me. I would love to play guitar in his band or write together. Anything, second engineer, coffee runner, whatever. There is an amazing documentary on him, A Poem is a Naked Person, that shows what a soulful cat and good spirit he is. His voice and piano rolls are so distinctive and something I am always trying to tap into – that aesthetic of being smooth and also rough at the same time. Never slick, always true, that’s the lesson of Leon. 

What got you into music and who are your influences?

I was 14 and Stairway to Heaven woke me up on my clock radio alarm (LOL) right as the solo begins. That was my call to arms. After that I got an SG jr. and slowed down the 33 1/3 RPM Zeppelin albums to 16 RPM, so I could figure out what was going on and how to play along. Later I went back to all the Led Zeppelin records and sorted out the opening tunings. I use a lot of open tunings in my work including a lot of tunings I make up myself that would not make sense to anyone else probably, where one string is way de-tuned, raised or lowered, so I have another visual model to cue fresh ideas from, that isn’t that standard blues boxes on the fretboard hemming you in. 

My influences are broad – I love music of all kinds! Again I am a stickler for all things genuine. Other influences besides Jimmy Page, listeners could probably guess: Leon Russell, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Little Feat, The Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, Deep Purple, Mott the Hoople, Bad Company, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Randy Travis, Vince Gill, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Lyle Lovett, I could go on forever and ever, there are so many greats!

What is the wildest thing that has ever happened to you in your musical journey?

I was in a band in the Bay Area when I was a teenager that actually opened up for Thin Lizzy at The Cow Palace. Our manager talked his way into this gig somehow, even though we were lightweight in comparison to Phil Lynott and company, duh. 

We got booed off the stage after a beer bottle was thrown and almost hit the bass player in the head. It exploded on his Ampeg amp head instead and there was crazy pyrotechnics. Our lead singer did what you should never do — in a scolding way he asked the crowd: “Hey! Who threw that?”  I was like: “Uh oh, this is not good.” Next thing you know there was a sea of debris coming at us and we had to flee to backstage. Our singer took it personally, but it was actually pretty funny. 

The same singer once did not show up on stage, when the whole band was already up there waiting and ready to play. We left the stage (doh!) to look for him. We could not find him until we went into the parking lot and saw him laid out cold because his trunk popped him in the head when he opened it to get his clothes. It was a cool vintage car with a spring loaded trunk apparently – ah well, the price of style haha. Good times. Or were they? I really think experiences like those are why I became a studio rat—it just seemed like crazy stuff like that was happening all the time on the road. 

What is the one thing about you / your music that you would like your fans to remember you by? And if you could tell your fans anything – What would that message be?

I use music to soothe and calm myself, so I hope that translates and telegraphs and people can feel that. The lyrics are all about my American Sun Belt journey and jurisdiction — but hopefully there is some universality to it all, so that it applies to everyone everywhere, and their own personal experience. 

When I was 14 and just starting to play, I used the guitar to make utterance instead of talking. My family was breaking up and it was rough on everybody, and I just retreated inward to music and sound, as a way to avoid the fury. Music can be both a means of escape and a way to communicate emotions that are difficult to put into words.

To me, music is like food, in that it is a way to bring people together. A lot of the road trip songs just come out — it is where I want to be, where I want go, or where I have been and want to go back. I have a really strong sense of place. I am paying homage to the Sun Belt section of America. It is where my father’s family is from, and it has been a search through music to discover my own identity. 

I have worked as a composer for hire but these songs are a passion project where I get to say what the style will be, and when the track is finished. Authenticity is really important to me – in all things. I like vintage rather than new. I like driving rather than flying. I watch a lot of old movies and I have discovered John Ford and his vision of America and the American spirit. Also I love the work of John Huston, William Wyler — even Jim Jarmusch, who is a more recent director. They all explore repeating American themes that are still relevant. To me none of it is hackneyed or corny. I am dead serious about honoring our common history, as complicated as it may be. Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Jack Kerouac, Larry McMurtry, and James Agee are writers that really inspire me. I am trying to catch their sense of deep soul and American resonance in these soundtracks. I feel a kinship with these artists who are seeking a sense of belonging. I think of myself as just another Americana singer-songwriter continuing the age-old tradition of storytelling through music.  

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Contact: Gabrielle Doré, President, Tilt Records.