For every mountain I climb
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.
Yet just a couple of years ago Miller found himself hitting the music industry's brick wall, abruptly without a recording or a publishing contract.
The 45-year-old Miller was born of dual Mohican and German descent on the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin. He studied Native flute and soaked up rock guitar (Hendrix and Dylan were early heroes), playing in garage bands as a teen and ultimately marrying and moving to Nashville in '85. While the Music City USA establishment didn't exactly roll out the red carpet ("I stuck out like a sore thumb," says Miller, laughing, "and just because some idiots were telling me I didn't belong there, that made me stay even longer!"), he did forge connections with songwriters like Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash. Miller stuck around, and took notes.
By the early '90s, Miller had issued four consistently selling albums on his own Rosebud label (Old Dreams and New Hopes; The Art of Survival; Loon, Mountain and Moon; Reservation Road Live), drawing the attention of Warner Bros. The label signed him to its Warner Western imprint for 1993's The Red Road, then moved him over to the Reprise imprint in '95 where he recorded Raven in the Snow. Reviewers were quick to salute the latter's deft blend of classic rock, new folk and Native music, in particular singling out the chiming, Byrds-like anthem "River of Time."
"Raven could have gotten airplay, and I feel bad that all that work I put into that album just went over the hill," Miller now says of his major-label dalliance. "I don't think they promoted it right. There was a time and place when they could have put me on tour with that album, but they didn't line me up with any of their artists. And some of their best were getting ready to tour -- Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Neil Young. Luckily, the BoDeans said they wanted me to go out with them. It was a very fruitful period for me, but I don't know what happened. Sales directly had a lot to do with it; they were dropping a lot of acts that were getting too artistic. Mark O'Connell, Maura O'Connor, Tish Hinojosa, Robert Mirabel [with whom Miller jointly issued 1996's Native Suite on Warner Western] -- they all left. The bean counters come in and say that if you're not selling 800,000 to a million units, if you're just selling 200,000, then you're not good enough."
After the Warner deal went south, so did Miller's publishing and management contracts. Miller retreated to Nashville, writing the material that would eventually find its way onto Ghostdance. He obtained the services of a "name" producer, Richard Dodd (Johnny Cash, George Harrison), who flew in from England, listened to 35 songs Miller had stockpiled, then turned to the songwriter.
"He said to me, 'Which songs do you own? Play them to me and tell me that.' Like, so much a part of me that I'm not putting them on the album just to prove something. That's how we found those 11 songs that are on the album. I'd go in and do two songs a day, just guitar and vocal live, with no metronome or drum machine, then we'd look at them and say this needs a 12-string here, this one a bass line here. Richard also said, 'I'd love to hear some strings on this. Would you mind if I started arranging string parts?' I love strings, so that's how they wound up on my album. I put two trucks in hock to pay for the symphony orchestra!"
The investment paid off. After Ghostdance (initially released independently on his own label) virtually swept the Nammies, Miller was contacted by venerable folk/roots label Vanguard Records, current home to Peter Case, Patty Larkin, John Hiatt, David Wilcox and others. Vanguard offered him a deal that not only would rerelease Ghostdance to a wider audience, but reissue his Rosebud albums as well. Miller says Vanguard's mentality is that of the old Reprise Records of the early '70s: artist-driven and focused upon integrity and intensity, not SoundScan figures, with an eye toward song preservation, not trend exploitation.
Miller's already begun brainstorming his next album for Vanguard, which he hopes will include some high-profile collaborations with other artists he's not at liberty yet to divulge. Meanwhile, he's also been busy with his burgeoning second career, painting; a number of his works have either graced his record sleeves or can be viewed on his Web site at www.billmiller.net, and he has a gallery show coming up shortly in Santa Fe. Additionally, he found time to record a gospel album for Mobile, Alabama-based contemporary Christian label Integrity Records.
Hear Our Prayer, released in September, came about unexpectedly after Miller was spotted playing flute at a Nashville music conference in '98 by an Integrity VP.
Says Miller, "I'm not ashamed to be a Christian, but I am ashamed about some of the things Christians have done. And a lot of the music really turns me off, so I figured that was the last place I wanted to be. But the strange thing is that they 'got' what I'm about and didn't want to try to change me, stop me from being so Native, none of that. They just said, 'You are a blessing to the world. Would you honor us by doing a project?' So I did 'Praises Again,' a Bob Dylan song off Slow Train Coming, a couple of their songs, some flute pieces and some of my own songs. It was a great challenge, and I believe it lifted me also to a new spiritual level. I thought it was the most awesome thing, just putting it totally in the hands of my Creator -- I just surrendered for the first time. That's what that record is: surrender."
Openness to new possibilities and change in his professional life are mirrored by the way Miller conducts himself in private. He's careful to ensure that his busy touring itinerary doesn't interfere with time off for the family, and he's proud of the fact that the doors to his work space at home are kept open.
"I have 15 guitars upstairs and all these gadgets, four-tracks, and my sons want to learn. I tell them they can't mess around, but they can play them if they take care of them. And it's become a room of sharing. As a parent, I feel like I should open my creative life and my working life to my children. It draws us somewhere closer together. And every child notched my writing up. Now my oldest is 20 -- we jam together, we sing together, and we enjoy each other's company as musicians. My 15-year-old son was into Limp Bizkit and now he's listening to Dylan, realizing my old Beatles records are pretty cool. In the same sense, I listen to him, too, because he'll turn me on to a Foo Fighters song that I get into: 'Ah, that's a cool chord . . . !' So I guess we gotta sit down at the fire together and exchange things and share the things that we know, the wisdom.
"We also have two adopted kids, and that's incredible, too. Because if I can love a stranger, if I can kiss on another little boy and girl until I die, feed them and clothe them and need them, that proves to me that I can get out of my own shell and love the neighbor across the street."
Despite a daunting career/family balancing act, Miller keeps his eye on the real prize: the human spirit. He urges others to do so as well.
"If you think about the things in medicine that have been beaten -- smallpox, for example -- or the work on cancer cures, it's not the doctors who just sit on their golf carts. No, it's because people in the medical field were searching for excellence to cure somebody. And musicians, I hope, are still out there looking for the next cure for a broken heart, or mending a broken home. We need our tools in our search for excellence, instead of just programs or politicians who tell us this or that is going to change. I hope I leave my children with the tools, with the will and the hope instead of despair and a bunch of money. Like in my song 'Listen to Me' [from Raven in the Snow], I ask if you give someone a blanket, will they necessarily be warm? No. In the last verse I said, 'I give you the seed' -- that is, I give you the tools -- 'dig your roots in the land.' It's that you've got to show people how to work within this world. We need to leave our generations with the tools, and the treasures, and the hope."
Putting his money where his mouth is, Miller notes that in addition to his upcoming concert at Cave Creek's Cactus Shadows High School, he'll be giving a private show "just for the students. It'll also be a couple-day residency where I work within the classrooms and talk to the kids -- a musical workshop.
"And you know what? It's great to have that opportunity when I'm on the road so much doing lots of one-night stands -- to have the opportunity to be able to get on with the real things."
For every child that follows the dream
With ten thousand angels they'll fly
No one will force them to run
They will stand up and fight
'Til the battle is won.
-- Bill Miller, "Every Mountain I Climb"
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