Miller is a versatile singer/songwriter, the winner, with Cloud of Dust, of the 2013 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest staged at MerleFest.
Here, he shares the background to his award-winning song …..
“I started out as a songwriter because of my grandfather, the great bluegrass fiddler, Jim Shumate. He was always known as a visionary fiddler but he was a great songwriter as well. I had always been a rabid music fan growing up and I loved all kinds of music, including bluegrass, but I don’t know if I would have started writing without him as a model.
For many years I just wrote songs for my bands to sing, mostly bluegrassy material, but as the years went on, I began to dabble in some writing in different styles. When we started Red June, we wanted it to be a traditionally-based band that did pretty much any original material we thought we could handle effectively. Nowadays I like to write for all kinds of different projects but bluegrass-style song-writing still calls to me more than anything.
When I first had the idea for Cloud of Dust, I was reflecting on the Dust Bowl era and the lessons that we may or may not have learned from that period in our history. I thought that a straight-ahead bluegrass song with a slightly contemporary feel would fit the sentiment that I was going for. Cloud of Dust tells the story of a young man that goes to Texas in 1929 to make a new life for himself but soon the land turns against him and things go very much awry.
Many members of my family on both sides were, at one time or another, subsistence farmers and/or homesteaders. I can’t imagine the frustration and fear of the Dust Bowl era farmer. I wanted the language of the song to be clear and direct and the delivery to convey that air of frustration and even anger. To me the most poignant line in the song is ‘led astray by trust’ – trust in what he had been told, trust in the conventional wisdom of the day.
We ended up putting the song on Red June’s 2012 album, Beauty Will Come. We also made a music video of it with Will Davis of Yellow Arrow Film. I entered the song (at my wife’s insistence!) into the bluegrass category for the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest 2013. Lo and behold, she was right and the song ended up making the finals.
We went over to the festival and performed the song live in the contest and came out on top. I’d like the song to be a reminder of our fragile relationship with the earth and the importance of sustainability and environmental stewardship. We can only push so far.”
Cloud of Dust
© John C. Miller, Kiowatica Music, ASCAP
Just a wrangler proud and lean
The best you’ve ever seen
Just 31 with a back as strong as iron
In ’29 we came
With nothing but a name
Our dreams as big as a July Texas sun
We work this piece of land
It gives what we demand
But now the rain don’t come like it used to do
I don’t wanna give up now
Gotta make it work somehow
Went along for money
Led astray by trust
Carried away in a big, ole cloud of dust
If the rain followed the plow
Well, that ain’t working now
All that’s left is a thousand miles of sand
I’m a hard working man
But I can’t understand
How to make a life when it all just blows away
John Cloyd Miller is a twelfth generation North Carolina native, and his musical roots run very deep. His great-great uncle was an old-time fiddle player from Wilkes County, North Carolina, who, in turn, influenced his great uncle, great aunt and grandfather to play the old music. Miller’s grandfather, the legendary Jim Shumate, became a pioneer in bluegrass music, forging a much emulated fiddle style in Bill Monroe’s band, and later as Flatt & Scruggs’ first fiddler. It is this fine family tradition that Miller carries on.
Miller’s foundation in traditional bluegrass and old-time Appalachian music coupled with his modern sensibility combine to make him a natural musician and inspired songwriter. He can sing tenor to just about anyone and is well known for his haunting mountain voice as well as his prowess on mandolin, guitar and old-time banjo. He is a recipient of an Artist Fellowship for song-writing awarded by the North Carolina Arts Council.
After graduating from Appalachian State University, Miller moved to Utah and joined the now-legendary western bluegrass band, Lo-Fi Breakdown. Eventually he went back home to North Carolina and co-founded the highly acclaimed acoustic Americana group, Red June. He has performed at countless festivals and events all across the USA.
He also loves to instruct others in traditional music, giving private and group instruction in person and via Skype on mandolin, guitar and clawhammer banjo.
Miller enjoys hiking, rock climbing, gardening and making jewelry from stones he collects in Utah and Wyoming.
He resides in Asheville, North Carolina, with his wife and music partner, Natalya Weinstein.