Rooted in bluegrass, rock, honky-tonk, Western swing, and good, old-fashioned storytelling, the J. Miller Band will bring its own brand of “hippie cowboy music” to a free, live concert at the Colorado Mountain College campus in Rifle on Jan. 17.
“We like to cater our shows to the audience,” said Jason Miller, the singer-songwriter who lends his name to the band. “We’ll do a string set in Rifle, with upright bass, mandolin and guitar,” he said. And for those who like the drive of rock ‘n’ roll, Miller assured, “We’ll find a way to get things moving.”
The J. Miller Band features singer and songwriter Miller on rhythm guitar and vocals, Jason Gilmore on mandolin and lead guitar, Andrew Koken on bass and Hans Schopen on drums. Together, they cover a broad range of musical terrain – from plaintive ballads to raucous toe-tappers. They’re scheduled to release a new CD in March 2014, featuring plugged-in tunes alongside their signature acoustic sound.
Mutual admiration brought band together
Before the band formed, Miller was doing solo work, singing and songwriting. He heard Gilmore playing in a jam band called Creating a Nuisance. When that group broke up, Miller jumped at the opportunity. “I snagged him,” he said. “He’s spent a lot of time alone in a room practicing his instruments. And you can hear it.”
Not long afterward, Miller met Koken, who was playing bass with a number of premier Colorado musicians. Miller liked what he heard and soon “roped him in, too.” According to Miller, Koken has great technical skills, often suggesting the perfectly nuanced chord progressions to polish a piece.
The newest member of the ensemble, drummer Schopen, comes from a metal background. “So he’s brought an interesting twist, too,” said Miller. From brushes to sticks, his percussion techniques bring to the band a slightly different angle.
A crowd-pleaser on the Colorado Springs music scene, the J. Miller Band has recently shared the stage with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ray Wiley Hubbard, Elizabeth Cook, Kelly Joe Phelps, Chuck Pyle, John Popper and The Duskray Troubadors, and James McMurtry.
“Playing on the same stage as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was epic,” said Miller. “Those guys, who’ve been playing music for 40 years, came back and introduced themselves. There’s no ego about any of them.”
Time in military, inspiration from musical heroes led Miller to songwriting
Miller started playing guitar at 16 but really dove in at 19 during a four-year stint in the Air Force. “That’s where I got my legs and when I wrote my first songs,” he said. “That’s where I took music lessons. It was a great time for me to kind of figure it all out. You travel a lot, which is always good for your material.”
Miller describes himself as a huge Graham Parsons fan. “He was one of the first people to combine country and rock,” said Miller. But it was songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark who led him to what he describes as a kind of musical enlightenment.
“I’d always listened to them before,” Miller said, “but then I finally heard them.” Shortly after this awakening, he recorded “The Road to Elvado,” released in 2011. Elvado means “crossing” in Spanish, and at that point in his career, he felt like he’d crossed over into an understanding of what makes a good song and a good story.
Most of Miller’s original songs come from humble beginnings, and not just because he grew up near the smokestacks of Steel Mill Country, but because he typically gets nudged toward a new composition by just a few words. “Ninety percent of the time, I get the first line,” he said. “If I get the first line, it points me in the direction of a certain vibe or feeling or message.”
When he talks about live performance, Miller goes rhapsodic. “It’s transcendentalism when you get in the pocket,” he said. “To me, the pocket isn’t just on stage; it’s the whole room. I try to connect with people right away and make eye contact. When I get that energy back, and I know that people are enjoying it, I begin to elevate, and the guys do, too. That’s why we’re always on a quest for a good song.”
That quest will bring them to the stage of the Clough Auditorium at Colorado Mountain College in Rifle on Friday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. The concert, the final in a series coordinated by CMC ArtShare and sponsored by Chevron and Grand River Health, is free and open to the public.