Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Forging His Own Path

By Bill Friskics-Warren

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Those wanting insight into the character of Dean Miller need look no further than "The Running Side of Me," the best and last song on his self-titled Capitol debut. "I'm a complex situation," he sings, backed by dusky mandolin and Dobro that sound like they could be coming from a roadhouse or from a backwoods church. "Yeah, I'm weak with pride/And a fevered contradiction/Burning deep inside/Like somethin' that's born wild/Kept under lock and key/Starved but in denial/So it bites the hand that feeds/Yeah, that's just the runnin' side of me."

Complex, willful, conflicted--Roger Dean Miller Jr. is all those things. As the song suggests, he's also prone to run. Indeed, to escape the shadow of his late father, Country Music Hall of Famer Roger Miller, the singer initially fled his musical calling to study acting. "I always knew I wanted to be a performer," he admits. "But it was really hard to come out and say I was gonna be a country singer when my father was so successful."

Too independent to ride his dad's coattails, Miller, now 31, pursued his music career the way most kids of non-celebrity parents do--by slogging it out in the clubs, first in Sante Fe and Los Angeles, then in Nashville. He also spent five years as a staff songwriter at Sony Tree and, after that, two years at Blue Water Music, home to such similarly progressive tunesmiths as Kim Richey and Jim Lauderdale. Finally, in 1995, Miller signed an artist development deal with Liberty Records, now part of Capitol Nashville.

Perhaps because success didn't come overnight to Miller, his debut betrays more depth and perspective than many first efforts. Encompassing everything from fiddle-and-steel honky-tonk ("I Feel Bad," "Wake Up and Smell the Whiskey") to ambient, Daniel Lanois-style production ("Broke Down in Birmingham"), the album is conversant with tradition. It's also ambitious and forward-looking, not unlike Dwight Yoakam's records. Which isn't to say that Dean Miller lacks its share of would-be radio hits, just that the album's rock 'n' roll energy belies such commercial fare as "Nowhere, USA" and "I Used to Know Her."

"I approached it with a rock attitude but played it like country music," Miller explains. "To me, it's all in the approach. What I think is lacking in current country music is edge and attitude. Some of my favorite people, the people who influenced me most, had that dark side, that toughness. Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings--Loretta Lynn, even. Loretta is one of my heroes--the first woman to talk about drinkin' and cheatin' and beatin' up other women. 'Fist City' is about beatin' up another woman."

These influences notwithstanding, Miller says he gets his darker side from his father. "Although the world rarely got to see the sad side of my father, he had it. He would just channel it in a lighter direction. If you look at songs like 'Husbands and Wives,' or 'The Last Word in Lonesome is Me,' or 'One Dyin' and One a Buryin',' which is a song about suicide, you can definitely see the dark side of my father.

"I inherited both the best and the most tragic aspects of my dad's personality. Good or bad, I'm exactly like my father--in manner, in look, in behavior, in outlook on life. I think we both see life in a similar way. Mine just comes out in a serious tone, whereas his came out in a funnier way."

Running man
Dean Miller made his way into music the way most people do--through endless gigging; the record deal came later.
Photo by Frank Ockenfels

Since Miller released his debut a few months ago, he has had to cultivate a sense of humor, particularly in interview situations. Reporter after reporter has asked him about his dad, while publications have, with alarming regularity, dubbed him "Prince of the Road," running photos of his father serenading the younger Miller when he was a baby. Yet as insensitive, even insulting, as these things may be, Miller says he's gradually coming to terms with his namesake's shadow. He accepts the fact that people may always judge him against the standard of his father's best work.

"I'm becoming more and more comfortable with embracing my father's relationship to me professionally," he confesses, "especially after doing this TV special about my dad." Roger Miller Remembered, a tribute to the late country singer-songwriter, was taped in Nashville just weeks ago; hosted by Willie Nelson and former NFL quarterback Don Meredith, the program will air on TNN in March. "After doing the show," Miller says, "I'm realizing how much love and respect is associated with his memory. It would be wrong of me just to blow that off."

Listening to Miller, one can't help thinking that his strong sense of self has enabled him to embrace his father's legacy even as he begins to forge his own. "In the beginning, before I made the record," he explains, "some people were telling me, 'Be commercial. Be more middle of the road.' Then there were other people there who kept saying, 'You need to be less middle of the road. You need to make a grungy, cool album because of who your dad was. The critics are gonna wanna hear something that sounds like it was recorded in a garage, something that's rough and cool.' And so every few weeks it would be a different thing. And all the while I'd just continue to say, 'OK, OK,' and continue to be who I am and do what I do."

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