John Miller could do just about anything when it came to bluegrass. He played guitar, mandolin, and upright bass. He sang lead and harmony parts. He arranged, produced, and wrote.
And much of the time he did it while fighting cancer through several debilitating rounds. John passed away early Thursday in Knoxville. He had entered a hospice program after doctors determined last week that there was nothing more to do except keep him comfortable. He was 49.
John came to music naturally. He looked up to his older brother Eddie, who played with Dale Ann Bradley and Coon Creek, and Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike. One of the highlights of John’s career came when he shared the stage with Eddie as part of Smith’s band.
John was devastated when Eddie died in a traffic accident on October 3, 2001. Eddie was on the way to meet up with the rest of the band at the annual IBMA convention in Louisville. But John continued to carry the musical torch for years after. His career included stints with Junior Sisk, Frank Solivan, Jesse Brock, and in a short-lived but talented band called The Travelers. He also partnered with bassist Mike Conner in a popular duo in the Roanoke, VA, area.
Each time a band gig dried up, John harbored plans to record solo projects and lead his own band. But at each step, John either found a home in a new band or had to step away to deal with cancer.
John first found out he had cancer of the tongue nearly 15 years ago. He couldn’t sing for a while. But he co-produced and arranged Look to the Light, Rick Lang’s award-nominated gospel project with Brock, and after it came out in 2010, he was eager to sing at a showcase for the album at IBMA that year in Nashville. And sing he did.
(As an aside, that showcase is where I met John. We started a personal and musical friendship that included co-writing a number of songs, including my first cut, The Forever Waltz, recorded by Jim and Valerie Gabehart.)
In 2013, while in The Travelers, John’s tongue cancer returned and he missed four months of work. His friends rose to the occasion and raised more than $6,000 for him, aided by a songwriter and journalist who had his head shaved in the middle of the IBMA exhibit hall to bring in donations for him. (I’m glad my hair grew back!)
That November, John made a glorious return with the band at Lucketts, VA. “I’m thinking a lot about tonight,” he told me before the show. “This matters a lot. You’ve got to prove to yourself that you can still do this.”
As I wrote in Bluegrass Today back then, “If Miller hadn’t talked about his illness from stage, few in the crowd might have known about the long layoff. His voice was strong, his picking was as layered as ever, and the band’s harmonies, a hallmark of their performances, were tight.”
John was back.
The next decade came with a series of highs and lows – new bands forming, old ones falling apart, illness returning a couple more times, followed by periods of improved health, a marriage ending, and, most importantly, new love.
John moved to Knoxville. He and Stephanie Miller wed on April 5, 2018, and were together to the end. They walked hand in hand through it all, living examples of the “in sickness and in health” vow.
John loved his family life, especially time spent with their granddaughter, Norah. He played and sang to her when he could, and hugged her when he couldn’t. There are dozens of wonderful photos of them together on Facebook. But one of the best is a solo shot of Norah from a year ago, pink sunglasses on upside down, a plastic syringe in her right hand and a bandage on her belly. There was nothing wrong with her. John was wearing a bandage where a drain tube had been removed after a recent surgery, and she wanted to be just like Poppy.
This is a hard time for family, friends, and bluegrass lovers. But John knew where he was going and today there is no pain. When I woke to the dreaded news this morning, I couldn’t help but smile through my tears at the thought of John teaching some new guitar licks to the Angel Band.
R.I.P., John Miller. Play on, brother.