MEET JULIAN CASH MILLER
By Josh Terry
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.”
JC MILLER SUN BELT STORIES
Contact: Gabrielle Doré, President, Tilt Records.
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, Andy Hackman, 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.