John R. Miller searches for home, hunkers down, then hits the road

Before his Rumba Cafe show, the Nashville-via-West Virginia songwriter talks about the life-changing music of John Prine, a pandemic pause and new album 'Depreciated'

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
John R. Miller

For most of his childhood, John R. Miller resisted the country, folk and bluegrass music that seemed to bubble up out of the Potomac River in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. That was his parents’ music, and Miller wanted to chart his own path. Punk rock seemed more his speed. 

But in his late teens, Miller began hanging out with a buddy who was a fiddle and clawhammer banjo player, and all of a sudden, old-time music became the stuff of his peers, not his parents. Soon enough, the same friend introduced Miller to a songwriter who would change his life.  

“I discovered John Prine, and that was a real heavy-hitting moment,” Miller said. “Once I found out about that, my whole perspective on songs changed.” 

Buoyed by the three-chord songs of Prine, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, along with a newfound acceptance of his West Virginia-bred singing voice, Miller began writing his own songs.

A few years ago, Miller found himself without a band, instead playing bass in stints with other bands to make some kind of living. Eventually, though, he made his way to Nashville, put together a group of musicians and teamed up with producers Justin Francis and Adam Meisterhans to make his own record, Depreciated, Miller’s Rounder Records debut that came out earlier this month. And on Saturday, July 31, Miller and his band will come to town for a show at Rumba Café with fellow West Virginia native William Matheny.

More:Concert preview: William Matheny at Kafe Kerouac

Depreciated, an album that will no doubt appeal to fans of Tyler Childers, Colter Wall and Sturgill Simpson, is a warm, no-frills record full of boozy bottles and lingering questions. While Miller evokes a strong sense of place with evocative references to his Shenandoah Valley upbringing, he wrestles with the idea of home throughout Depreciated.

“I started traveling a lot when I was about 19 or 20 and just never really stopped. I’ve felt unanchored for the better part of my life at this point, so I've always been trying to figure out where home is for me,” Miller said. “I know where I'm from, and I know where the people that I love are, but I always felt the pull to be traveling.” 

In that way, the pandemic provided Miller with a pause he didn’t realize he needed until it arrived. “It was a strange sort of relief,” he said. “Obviously the pandemic was a catastrophic, awful thing, but personally it felt like someone forcing me to stay put. It gave me this free pass, like I didn't have to do it anymore. … Once that happened, I just breathed, and I was able to settle into a kind of daily, quiet life and routine.” 

The past year also forced Miller to delay Depreciated, which was recorded just before the pandemic, but the longer timetable proved to be a blessing in disguise. Miller initially figured he would release the record on his own. “I didn't really have a plan. I’ve always been do-it-yourself with this kind of stuff,” he said. During the prolonged downtime, Rounder Records took interest, and now Miller is touring with a label behind him for the first time, which is a comfort out on the road.

 "It doesn't feel quite as much like you're just floating in outer space,” said Miller, who also said he’s keeping an eye on the rising numbers of COVID cases and staying as vigilant and safe as he can on tour. “I’m ready at any point to pull the plug if it seems like it's time to do that.”