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DEAN MILLER

“I learn slow, but now I know / We only get what we’re given.”
Dean Miller - “Right Now”

Fifteen years after he first showed up in Nashville with his guitar and a youthful conviction that he was bound for stardom, Dean Miller has finally hit his stride. It’s not that it took all this time to figure out how to make his music work. It did, however, take that long to find a situation in which his associates asked him not to compromise, but to simply be himself.
The result is Platinum, an album that captures Miller’s unique balance of polar traits: optimism and sarcasm, confidence and vulnerability, musical aggression and analytical introspection.
“It’s exactly where I’m at in my life,” Miller notes, “because it’s the first time ever that somebody has said ‘Here’s the money, go fall on your face.’ So what you get on this album is exactly where I’m at—artistically and as a writer—everything.”
Writing nine of the 11 tracks, Miller has fashioned an extraordinarily honest album, one that grapples with relationships, identity, weakness, risk and vocational revenge. Its emotions are familiar, from the steely heartbreak of “Hard Love” and “Stronger Than Your Love” to the urgent celebration of “Right Now” and “Yes Man.” “On A Good Day” finds the lead character sorting through his repeated failures to find the right path to success, and “Coming Back To You”—with its starkly surprising ending—is practically a metaphor for Miller’s own life: just when you think you’ve pinned him down, you discover he’s a bit different than what you had expected.
However, not every song on Platinum represents Miller specifically. But he explores the issues the characters raise through his own viewpoint, an accumulation of experiences in a gritty, hard-knock world.
“Some artists,” he observes, “will say, ‘I don’t want to sing a song unless I’ve lived it’ or ‘I’ve lived everything I’ve sung.’ My view is that a songwriter is a storyteller, and you don’t always tell stories about everything you’ve lived. You don’t have to be Cinderella to read the story to somebody.”
“Some of these songs I’ve lived, and some of them I haven’t,” he continues. “I’ve not ever been an alcoholic—that I know of—but I’ve sure known some. So I can tell you that I’ve at least been around everything that’s in the songs.”
Those songs are presented with a raw simplicity. Miller blends honky-tonk, outlaw country and roots-rock influences in a manner that frames the material with an edge, but never quite overpowers the melodies or the messages.
“If I’m anything, I’m very decisive,” Miller says of the sessions, which were conducted in a short span of time. “I just trusted the people I worked with—I hired them because of their ability and quality. I wrote the songs and picked the songs that I wanted to go in with, and there was no over-thinking. I just went in and did it. It’s not rocket science, it’s country music.”
Country music is something Miller should know about. He was born in Los Angeles, CA, at a time when his father, singer-songwriter Roger Miller, was at his career peak. A few of his dad’s friends—Willie Nelson and, specifically, Kris Kristofferson—proved to be significant influences.
“Professionally, Kris is my hero,” Miller says. “His songwriting and who he is—he’s just the coolest guy on screen ever, I think. But in life, he proves himself to be only better once you get to know him, much deeper and very philosophical.”
Acting, not music, was Miller’s original calling, and after graduating early from high school in Santa Fe, NM where he grew up, Miller relocated to Los Angeles. But his creative attention was refocused by the progressive artists that seeped out of Nashville in the mid-1980s: Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and Rodney Crowell.
“It was an era when all these other cheesy things were happening musically, and these guys were coming out with this amazing cool stuff, and it really turned my ship around,” Miller recalls. “I started more and more writing songs and wanted to be that.”
Miller and a couple of friends formed a country band, The Sarcastic Hillbillies, and began playing around the Southland.
“We just bonded together,” he says, laughing at the “Sarcastic” part of the stage name. “We were all smart a sses. It seemed logical.”
Eventually, it seemed just as logical to pursue Nashville. He moved there in 1990 with big expectations and little understanding of the odds in front of him. He was able to make some early inroads, securing his first publishing deal and writing with plenty of other songwriters. But he often found himself sitting in writing sessions with the distinct feeling that his co-writers were looking through him, the shadow of his father commanding their attention.
“I would get these almost-cuts or cuts that didn’t make the album, or cuts that didn’t end up going anywhere,” he observes. “It just became a series of ‘almosts’ for years.”
At least he proved resourceful. Nashville’s centralized music business was in the midst of a boom period in the early-‘90s, and nearly every day, some company on 16th or 17th Avenue threw a self-congratulatory party to celebrate the latest #1 hit or platinum album.
“This is so horrible,” he laughs. “I was broke, I would go drive up Music Row and look for those outdoor tents or some event and I would pull up and eat free. That’s how I would feed myself off and on. It was a great way to network. I was meeting people, but more importantly, I was eating for free.”
His legwork paid off with the release of his debut album in 1997, though it proved another disappointment. It was expensively made, expensively promoted, but required more compromise than he expected and was quickly abandoned when nothing jumped off of it. A second label deal would emerge, but it likewise was caught up in label uncertainty and never came out.
“No matter where you come from, Nashville has its own set of rules,” Miller suggests. “I always call it deceptively accessible. You can go to the Sunset Grill or the grocery store and see a label president, it doesn’t get you any closer to the deal. I saw LeAnn Rimes yesterday at a restaurant, but it doesn’t make me get a cut on her album.”
With the “almosts” overwhelming his psyche—and doing nothing for his bank account—Miller was forced to take some menial jobs while he reevaluated his life. Yet as much energy as the 40-hour weeks took out of him, he could not abandon music.
“I’ve just always had something inside me pushing me forward,” he notes. “It’s almost like a manic thing: I’m writing these songs, I’m doing this stuff, I get up and go, ‘Hmm, what can I do to make it today?’ But I don’t really know why all the time.”
One of Deepak Chopra’s teachings helped him realize that “doing this stuff” was enough, whether it ever paid off or not.
“This quote did change my whole life,” Miller admits. “He said, ‘In order to be successful, you have to give up your attachment to the result.’ So if you’re a performer and you’re performing for four people or 4,000 people, you’re still a guy holding a guitar singing. What we get caught up in is the result.”
Miller became fixated on the work, and the results he’d been looking for finally started materializing. Terri Clark earned a hit by recording his song “A Little Gasoline,” and Miller racked up songwriting credits on albums by Trace Adkins and George Jones, among others.
Looking back, he’s satisfied with the knowledge that his successes were delayed.
“If I had become what I wanted to become when I was 25, I would’ve been a jerk,” Miller reflects. “I came to Nashville wanting to be Elvis, wanting to be a big, giant star, and it didn’t work out. But failing has made me a much better person.”
It’s also given Miller much more life experience to mine in the course of Platinum. “On A Good Day” explores the hazardous differences between the sexes, “I’ve Been A Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll Be A Long Time Gone)” applies a new ferocity to one of his father’s songs, and “Music Executive” levels Nashville’s decision-makers with an acerbic wit that rings true for anyone who’s ever tried to pitch their creative wares.
“There’s not anything in that song that’s not actually true,” he observes. “It’s angled, hopefully, with a sense of humor, because I don’t want to be a dark and pissed-off guy. I certainly don’t feel that way.”
Ultimately, “Right Now” provides the key to understanding Dean Miller and the maturity with which he now views both his life and career. In the song, Miller confesses “I learn slow, but now I know/We only get what we’re given.”
“That,” he says, “is definitely my philosophy of life. You should never have a sense of entitlement about life. You should be grateful for it, because it can be taken away from you tomorrow.”
For today, Miller’s life and career have intersected in a meaningful way. All that slow learning has created a complex and powerful artist. – Tom Roland            

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