Jim Miller talks about Western Centuries
Western Centuries debut album The Weight of The World featured in Lonesome Highway’s review of their favourite albums of 2016. The band are essentially a collaboration of three singer songwriters and blue grassers, Cahalen Morrison, Jim Miller and Ethan Lawton. They hooked up with pedal steel player Rusty Blake and bassist Dan Lowinger to form the band and seemlessly recreate the classic country / roots crossover sound perfected by The Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers nearly five decades ago. Lonesome Highway spoke with Jim Miller (co-founder of Donna The Buffalo) to get the history behind the formation of this super group in advance of their first visit to Ireland.
Where did the motivation come from to form Western Centuries?
We’re all bluegrass and old time country players so we actually started jamming together informally you know, traditional bluegrass stuff because all of us have been playing that all out lives. At that time Cahalen and Ethan had some original songs so we decided to see what the songs sounded like with bass and drums. We evolved from there but we didn’t take it too seriously at first. It was great fun so last year we thought, why not go ahead and take it a bit further.
Tell me about the Country Hammer project which featured Cahalen, yourself and Ethan and how it evolved into Western Centuries?
I’ve always loved singing traditional country songs and Cahalen grew up in rural New Mexico and his parents are big time country music fans. He had written lots of country songs but hadn’t gotten around to recording them and asked me if I’d like to help him. I said sure, but it wasn’t as if we were going to be a touring band. So, he had about twelve songs to put down on that record and I was just a side kick, they were all his songs. That basically was Country Hammer, it was put out but we didn’t tour with it, was more like a fun thing but we got a really good response. Ethan had his songs too, I had played all my life as a backup guy which I didn’t want to be anymore, I wanted to be part of the creative side of things though I’d never written a song before. So I started writing too and we decided collaborate for the Western Centuries record. It was actually my first attempt at song writing.
With three songwriters contributing to the album were the songs previously written and in cold storage or did you all write specifically for the album?
For me I wrote them for the album. For Cahalen and Ethan a kind of a mix, they had some in cold storage that they hadn’t tried in a country format and other ones they just wrote for that record. The fun thing is that now as we are working on songs for our next record when someone comes up with a great song it inspires us all, you think oh my god, I have to come up with an equally good song, which is a challenge but it’s fun. I can’t imagine being faced with having to write thirteen songs myself to put out a solo record!
Does that suggest that having three songwriters in the band is more of a motivator than ego crippling?
Absolutely, all three of us are inspired by each other. Ethan listens to Caribbean music and Cahalen listens to straight country and I don’t listen to much country at all, more Wilco and r’n’b and that kind of stuff. That pushes us in different directions which is exciting.
Are all of the band based in Seattle?
No. Cahalen and Ethan are based in Seattle, I live about sixty miles north of New York City on the Hudson river, our bass player Dan Lowinger is from Ashville North Carolina and our pedal steel player Rusty Blake is from Nashville. Four different locations across the country. I actually met Cahalen in Seattle, my wife was working there in grad school and I was just tagging along. We met at this party called Fuck Winter. The winter’s in Seattle can be very similar to what I think you guys have, never ending drizzle, so they have this annual party in January, it’s a jamming bluegrass party. I heard about it and went along and right enough it was jamming and drizzle that never stopped (laughs)
The album manages to maintain a consistency throughout even with the shared responsibilities. Was that your agenda or did it occur due to the compatibility between you?
It was our agenda but we weren’t sure that it would work. We were nervous about it but it seems from the reviews that it did work, though I can’t exactly say why. We really enjoy working together and maybe that comes out and also the addition of the pedal steel and the fiddle adds another dimension to the songs. Because we are all blue grassers we are way big on the vocals and we wanted three part vocals for the big choruses which has something to do with it as well
Your own compositions, I’m thinking in particular of Rock Salt and The Long Game, very much recall the sound of The Band. Were they an influence on you as a young musician?
They are my favourite band of all time though I wasn’t consciously writing songs that sounded like them but somehow I must have created that sound because people keep bringing that up. if I want to listen to music in my car it’s always the Band and Levon Helm, played until the cows come home (laughs). They appealed to me because of the stories they told with their music and the fact that they had different vocalists, the whole cooperative thing is inspiring to me. The rest of Western Centuries, because they are younger than me, don’t know their music as much as I do.
Another song that you wrote Knockin’ Em Down tells of the less glamourous side of touring however tongue in cheek the lyrics might be. Is touring really that rough?
(Laughs) That was actually written about a different band, I’ve been in a lot of bands let me tell you. Starting at the age of nine! That song was written about a band I was in that every tour seemed to involve driving in snowstorms, all we seemed to be doing was spinning our car wheels night after night!
The album as a whole achieves a wonderful classic country feel right down to the artwork. You used Bill Reynolds from Band of Horses to produce the album and recorded it in Nashville. Tell me about those decisions?
I’ve known Bill for many years, we both originally played in the band Donna The Buffalo, a rootsy cosmic hippy type band at that time. We really enjoyed playing together and Bill has done really well at production, working on a whole bunch of records. I pushed that idea with the band and I also loved the idea of making a record in Nashville. I mean, Emmylou Harris recorded three albums in that studio so when I even sat in the toilet in the studio I thought, my God Emmylou was here! (laughs). The artwork on the album was deliberate, the photograph on the cover was taken by friend of Cahalen in a small town in New Mexico, probably as far as you can get from humanity. The photo taken by her shows her dad actually herding goats in the winter on horseback. We wanted an image on the cover that would convey something a bit deeper than ‘here’s the happy band ‘image or a picture of us leaning against a barn!
Have you toured in your previous musical life in the UK?
I was just in the UK a couple of weeks ago with a different band I’m involved with called Red Dog Run, an acoustic banjo, guitar and fiddle group playing folk and roots. We had shows in England and Scotland, part of the Gainsborough Friends of American Music Festivals. It was very much a one off, I don’t know how they even found out about us! Cahalen has toured lots in the UK over the years often with Eli West, I keep hoping that I can tag on to him and follow his burning star (laughs).
I see you’re playing Music City Roots in Nashville on April 5th and receiving high praise from Jim Lauderdale who hosts the show.
I’ve known Jim Lauderdale for twenty-five years. When I was in the Donna The Buffalo we made a record with him where we were his backing band, the album is called Wait For Spring and it’s a crazy assed record. He’s a nut and a half (laughs), such an endearing guy and somehow he got the idea that he was going to have us be his band, he wrote all the songs for the album and we recorded it in Nashville in a studio where he did all his earlier records. You should check it out, it’s one of the wackiest things. He actually got this weird psychedelic painting of all of our faces on the cover. I check in with him regularly because he goes so hard, never rests, never stops, I don’t know how he pulls it off but there he is.
We get the opportunity to see Western Countries live in Ireland / UK next month?
Yes, and we’re really looking forward to it, particularly Ireland. I think we’re going to do well in Ireland, that’s a hunch that I have (laughs). When I played in Scotland a few weeks back some people there were excited for Western Centuries to be playing there also and I’m thinking how did they even hear of the band! Our first date in Ireland is in Kilkenny is in a pub called Billy Byrnes and I believe It’s sold out and our Saturday show is selling fast too.
Interview by Declan Culliton