This month’s Songwriter’s Back Story features the song, Around The Corner, written by Milan Miller and Thomm Jutz and recorded by banjo great, Terry Baucom and the Dukes of Drive. This is Baucom’s follow-up to the first single, The Rock, from the same project.
The Miller/Jutz songwriting team, in particular, hits close to home for me as an artist and a writer. I have known both of these incredibly talented musicians as band mates and two of my favorite “go to” co-writers. I count these gents among my good friends as well. No surprise there, since the bluegrass community tends to be a uniquely tight-knit group.
I caught up with Milan and Thomm at Thomm’s home studio in Mt. Juliet, TN to talk about Around The Corner and how it came to be. Like much of their catalog of songs, it stemmed from a great idea followed by focus and hard work. This is how these two create. It is a fairly new partnership, a little over two years in the making, but both members are dedicated to the craft and to the rare but precious times when both are in town. Milan offered up the idea and structure to Thomm by email before one of their scheduled Saturday morning writes. Thomm was in.
I asked Milan what inspired the song. He replied: “It was an idea I had for a while, but I couldn’t get it fully developed the way that I wanted to. I had a rough melody. Watching life in general…walking down the aisle in the grocery store and you see something really funny happen, or you turn on the news and what starts out as a bright sunshiny day, then something awful happens. You just never know what’s going to happen but if you get bogged down with those thoughts then you’ll become a recluse and you’ll never leave your house.”
Milan describes how he sort of simmered on it for a time: “I knew I didn’t want it to be a dark song like ‘what’s around the corner is some bad stuff,’ sometimes you will go through rough patches but you gotta keep plugging away. Hopefully the math will come out in your favor. But certainly the ultimate point being, ‘you must be present to win,’ ’cause if you lock yourself in the house and never get out and don’t keep plugging away well then it’s never gonna happen. I got enough of the idea to pitch to Thomm [to co-write]. He was really helpful.”
Thomm and Milan completed the song in a few short hours. With a little bit of distance, Milan reflects on the completed work, “When I hear the song and see the lyrics now, to me it’s one of those songs depending on what kind of day I’ve had or what kind of mood I’m in, I hear different things in it, which is a good thing. It’s not a ‘hey everything is great’ song but it has a happy melody. If you’re dreaming and your dreams are going good, you may hear the motivation to just keep going. If you’re having a not-so-good-of-a day, there’s hopefully some comfort.” Though they didn’t set out to write a ‘self-help, preachy’ song, it speaks for itself through its uplifting lyrics and whimsical melody.
Thomm describes their approach to songwriting from two perspectives: his own and the collective team’s. He explains that he and Milan do not necessarily need to experience a situation in order to write about it. The ability to not take themselves too seriously is another key factor in their working relationship, and the trust factor between the two is high. Someone has to be able to say, “That’s not working let’s move on” without being offended or shutting down the other writer. Thomm shared this personal insight: “If I have a good idea, what’s more important is an accurate emotion rather than an accurate situation. That’s how I approach [song] writing overall.”
As a co-writer, I can attest to this duo’s innate songwriting sense and sensitivity. Their uncanny ability to key into the soul and voice of an artist shines through. While writing for my latest record, These Hills, each idea they brought to the table resonated with me, and each song we wrote inspired me enough for it make the cut. “When I saw that coal train downtown, I would not have connected that to my life. But I connected it to your life, [Irene]. The image was compelling first.” Thomm is referring to track #2: Coal Train. Perfect fit on every level
There is an obvious ease about these two wordsmiths, as Thomm utters a blunt and candid comment: “Young writers sometimes feel like they have something really important to say…I don’t.” Milan adds, chuckling, “I can’t wait around for song ideas, my life is boring enough, and I’m ok with that. I have to look around and that’s where I find my ideas.” Thomm adds, self-effacingly: “We are NOT poets, we just write.” That’s some pretty honest dialogue! And while I don’t discount the value of those who observe and report the world around, I have to disagree with Thomm. These men are also, and indeed, poets. Sorry guys!
“With Around The Corner, we thought it was more contemporary in terms of chord progression. But it’s one of those songs that, when you hear the cut [final recorded version], it freaks you out how good it is,” Thomm says, becoming more animated as he reveals his reverence for the artist that recorded their song, “They changed some phrasing things that we never would have thought about. The arrangement is GREAT. The singer sings it as if it’s his own song. It is, of course, an honor to have an artist like Terry Baucom record one of my songs. Terry is one of my favorite players and the lead singer, Joey Lemons, is one of the best voices in bluegrass.” Milan echoes the sentiment: “it went from what I thought was just a good song, after hearing their version…well, it just made it 100 times better.”
The person responsible for matching the song with the artist is Terry’s wife and award-winning broadcast personality and musician, Cindy Baucom. Cindy’s brother and Milan were roommates at Appalachian State back in their home state of North Carolina, so the history between the families is long and strong. Milan has also written two other songs on Terry Baucom albums. After Cindy brought Around The Corner to Terry, it was just a matter of listening and arranging.
Despite strong personal and family relationships, the song still had to pass muster. Fledgling songwriter’s be warned! There’s no substitute for a strong song that resonates with an artist.
Terry said, “I knew from the first time I heard the demo that it was a great song. I had to decide if it fit me and the band – since this was the first recording featuring all the members of my touring band. I knew this would be a big song for somebody. Cindy loved it. The band loved it…and we did get a recording we were proud of. Then you always hope the listening audience will like it—but most of all, we hoped we had captured what Milan and Thomm had envisioned for it. It’s doing well and I appreciate them sharing the demo with us.”
It doesn’t hurt that the writing team of Thomm Jutz and Milan Miller is quickly becoming a known source for great songs. Bluegrass artists in search of repertoire are taking notice of the integrity and prolific body of work they produce. Their past work is worth seeking out as well.
Thomm Jutz’s moved to Nashville from the black forest of Germany in 2004. He quickly found himself as a sought after session player and sideman on the road for Americana artists, Mary Gauthier and Maura O’Connor. As a songwriter and producer, he is credited with creating and releasing 4 volumes of critically acclaimed original American Civil War songs titled, The 1861 Project. Each volume is unique in itself and backed by an all-star cast of performers and songwriters. Nancy Griffith and Kim Richey have recorded Thomm’s songs on their records as well. Thomm has a surprise project that he is working on with journalist/singer-songwriter, Peter Cooper, coming out on my favorite label Mountain Fever Records. To be announced soon.
Multi-instrumentalist Milan Miller’s songwriting credits are close to the 100 mark. Some notables would include, What’ll I Do and Carry Me Back to Carolina by Terry Baucom, 40 Acre Blues by Darrell Webb, Every Pilgrim Needs A Highway by Kenny and Amanda Smith, and 5 songs to date by Balsam Range. Milan released a project with Balsam Range lead singer and longtime friend, Buddy Melton, in spring of 2016 titled, Secrets, Dreams and Pretty Things. The album is star-studded and getting a lot of play on bluegrass stations. He is currently nominated for the 2016 IBMA Songwriter of the Year Award.
The songwriting team can be credited for the following collaborations: Walkin’ In the Blueridge Mountains by Junior Sisk, Joseph by Buddy Melton, and two coming out this fall with Balsam Range.
You can keep up with Thomm and Milan by checking out their web sites ’cause, “You never know what’s waiting ‘round the corner, but don’t let that slow you down.”