For the better part of a decade, Scott Miller was a performance regular in Lexington clubs. An immensely articulate songsmith, he became an ambassador of sorts for two seemingly unconnected musical camps: a thriving Knoxville musical community and a brand of Americana rock that knew a good time when it saw one, especially when it came to the libations that fueled the fun.
Miller returns to Lexington on Friday after a prolonged absence that has seen separations of sorts from both factions. Three years ago, he left Knoxville — his home since the days of The V Roys, the rock troupe that introduced Miller to Lexington in 1996 — to his family's farm in Staunton, Va., west of Charlottesville. A year before that, he became sober.
Both events happened out of necessity, but Miller said he is now seeing the benefits of how they are playing out, personally and professionally.
"It's been weird," Miller said. "I've always thought I could do what I do from anywhere. It's been a little more difficult than I thought, but I'm finding the balance. Not being near Nashville, because so much of my business is there, is tough. But I'm home. I'm where I belong.
Sobriety, not surprisingly, was no less difficult an adjustment. Up through Miller's first post-V Roys albums, the boozy charm of his music was innocuous. But during some of his final local shows at Lynagh's Music Club and The Dame, his performance sloppiness ran rampant. Even that wouldn't have been such a big deal had records like 2003's Upside Downside and 2006's Citation not been full of such strong, folk-infused songs.
"Number one, that had to happen," Miller, 45, said of giving up drinking. "If I look back on it through all the years, this was inevitable. Two, it's always one day at a time. Who knows? I could go out tomorrow and blow everything I've just built over almost four years. But, man, I sing better. I play better. I'm much more in tune with what I'm doing. Before, I would just get up there and everything I tried to reach this transcendent state to make my art good, ... well, it really didn't work. It just made it bad and out of time.
"The first year that I was sober was really tough. It was different being in front of crowds. It wasn't stage fright. It was just hard to sort of find a groove. Everybody told me, 'That will come.' And it did. It did. I'm back in the pocket now. I enjoy the shows. Everything is better. It doesn't mean everything is perfect. But at least I've got a fighting shot."
Adding to Miller's current state of renewal was the 2013 release of what is arguably his best album, 2013's Big Big World. The project was a collaborative record with Doug Lancio, longtime lieutenant in Patty Griffin's band who currently doubles as John Hiatt's chief guitarist. Many of the songs on Big Big World were sculpted out of sound structures and melodies Lancio created that Miller later set lyrics to.
"Doug would start in the mornings and just sort of mess around and lay down different grooves and tracks. Then I would come in and listen to those and see if it inspired something to write about or else I would take some half-finished stuff I had and build to suit. I'd go down the hall and start splicing that stuff together and try to make a 31/2-minute minute song out of this 20-minute stuff we had.
"I didn't really get to live with these songs before we put them out, so we've finally got everything down now. There is just something about going out and playing them every night. You start finding their cracks and stuff like that."