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For every river that winds
For every wind that will blow
I will send out my prayers
For the children below.
-- Bill Miller, "Every Mountain I Climb"
These days, it's hard enough for parents to generate enough moral and ethical background noise to partially drown out the twin jackhammers of asocial nihilism and cultural negativity. How can anyone hope to reach the minds of kids they've never even met?
For Native American singer-songwriter Bill Miller -- not coincidentally, the father of five -- it hinges on society nurturing an attitude shift and, in individuals, a change of heart.
Says Miller, calling midtour from somewhere on an Ohio interstate, "This world is filled with yield signs, stop signs, things to make you turn your head. We've become a society that wants to watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire rather than 'Who Wants to Be a Better Dad.' But a change has to come from within all of us. You have to teach your children -- there's the old Crosby, Stills & Nash thing -- and you have to teach them well. You can give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but if you teach a man how to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime.
"It's like when I worked with some kids in Utah who were locked up on some drug charges, from messed-up families, and these kids, when I actually talked to them, they were the sweetest kids ever. They were just from bad homes and had hard struggles. I've grown up with enough poverty, alcoholism, abuse, rape, incest in my own childhood to think enough is enough. I was suicidal at 19; I don't want to be suicidal at 45. I want to play and have some joy in my life and share that. Look to the other side of the tracks for hope and not for pain; don't look at these people as scum, but as hopeful people who you can be reaching out to. There's got to be what I call a 'change of heart.'"
One formula for change: the healing powers of music. On his latest album, Ghostdance (Vanguard Records), Miller consistently meditates upon our interconnectedness as humans. The pledge outlined above in the lyrics of the lushly textured, orchestral "Every Mountain I Climb" is one of his clearest declarations of intent. Similarly, when in the gospel-like "The Reason" he brings the issue down to an intensely personal level -- the lines "Through all the years I've watched you grow/The little secrets we both know/How I held you when you slept/I've always felt the tears you wept" suggest Miller's relationship to his children -- he still manages to convey a sense of the communal urge to offer comfort. And "The Vision," a compelling Tom Petty-ish number, points out that even though we must all trace our own paths through life, in the end, we're journeying toward a shared destination: "I don't claim to have all the answers/And I've got my share of questions/But if I don't follow blindly/It doesn't mean I've lost my way."
While the edgy, rocking title cut, with its Native flute, percussion and background vocals, can be taken as Miller's evocation of the traditional Indian holy ritual ("I wanna go where the dead are raised/Where the mountain lion lays down with the lamb/I wanna stand where God is praised"), he points out that the song is also about him getting down to the basics: "'Ghostdance' was a reflection on the emotions of ghost dancers, of course, but it also dwelled in me on the emotions of being a father, forgiveness, of pain, sorrow, joy, where-are-we-going questioning. Having a lot of questions, like I say in 'The Vision.' Not all answers, just questioning -- and that's okay. I don't have all the answers."
Miller acknowledges that most Native artists who cross over to the rock world are assumed to have political agendas -- John Trudell is one highly visible example -- but quickly asserts that his music, while frequently issue-driven, is deliberately apolitical in order to keep the focus upon those issues' human component. (In fact, he'll privately reveal his presidential ballot choice but requests that it be kept off the record.) If there's one theme that has run through all Miller's albums, it's that of inclusiveness.
Perhaps it's this trait, clearly one with spiritual underpinnings, along with some very profound lyrical and songcraft skills, that's earned him an audience well beyond the traditional confines of so-called "Native" music. Upon its initial release, Ghostdance racked up five awards last year at the increasingly prestigious Nammies ceremonies (Native American Music Awards), sending Miller home with trophies for Artist of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Male Artist, Best Folk/Country Artist and Songwriter of the Year. His fan base additionally includes both devotees of roots/alt-country (you can always spot Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young and Steve Earle tee shirts at Miller concerts) and members of the musical elite themselves -- Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder asked him to perform at the band's 1993 Apache Indian benefit concert in Mesa, while Tori Amos had Miller as her opening act in '94 on the Under the Pink tour.