Back in the mid-'90s, just around the time that Jason Miller was getting out of the Air Force, country legend Ralph Stanley had an album out called Saturday Night & Sunday Morning. As the title suggested, the songs were divided up between late-night reverie and early-morning reflection.
On Road to ElVado, the J. Miller Band veers more toward the latter. Produced by the Haunted Windchimes' Inaiah Lujan, tracks like "Waiting on My Time" and "So Long Corinne" would fit nicely on a mixtape alongside songs by Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt.
"In Spanish, 'el vado' means 'the crossing,' and this whole record to me was really just a representation of my maturity," says the Colorado Springs singer-songwriter, who recently turned 40.
"It was like, I finally get this now, what makes a good song. And whether it captivates you or not, it captivates me. I'm real selfish about it."
Or generous, depending on how you look at it. Even Miller's most personal lyrics convey universal sentiments.
And then there's the title track, an Old West narrative worthy of Texas troubadours Terry Allen and Guy Clark:
And the town lay sleeping
As the lawmen were creeping
She slowly stepped into the light
She yelled "Vaya con Dios
El agua mia caballo
Now who's the first sumbitch to die?"
Miller sees ElVado as a departure from his first studio album, which was recorded at Bill Douglass' Royal Recording with a big sound bolstered by Bryant Jones on Hammond B-3. "It was overproduced a little bit," recalls Miller, "but we had fun doing it."
For this album, the arrangements were built around an acoustic ensemble featuring Miller's old Genuwines bandmate Jason Jackson on dobro and backing vocals, Jason Gilmore on mandolin, Ben Lewis on fiddle, and Andrew Koken on bass. Friday's CD release show will find the acoustic band playing with some guest musicians from the album, followed by a full-on electric set.
"We'll have nice Telecasters and vintage amplifiers," says Miller. "And we've got Hans Schopen, who toured with that metal band Khrinj. So we've got this big-ass metal drummer, you know, playing country music."
Road from Valparaiso
Miller's own interest in combining country and rock goes back to his youth in Valparaiso, a small Indiana town that's home to a Lutheran university and not much else.
It was there that the future musician spent time listening to Bruce Springsteen records, followed in turn by the outlaw country of Ray Wylie Hubbard and the psychedelic country of Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
"I actually visited Joshua Tree and hung out there for a little while," says Miller of a pilgrimage to the national park where Parsons and Keith Richards communed with a variety of worlds. "They would take a bunch of drugs and go out in the desert and try to find UFOs."
Miller says he continues to be inspired by Parsons' music and the originality it embodied.
"I love Gram's individuality, and I loved the fact that he was a very mediocre vocalist, but he didn't care. And I absolutely loved his songwriting, because to me it was so unorthodox. Like 'A Song for You' — the lyrics were really kind of far out, but you knew what he was talking about. And then he brought it all together with a beautiful chorus. You know, he was a country guy who was just edgy."
After Miller left the service, he and his wife Allison relocated to Colorado Springs to be near relatives and raise a family. The musician spent years working as a mortgage broker, before leaving the white-collar world to start a roofing business that gives him more freedom to pursue his music.
Miller had put in a lot of time playing bars with the Genuwines by the time he hooked up with Lujan, whose own group had gone from playing every gig they were offered to a more selective approach that's led to national touring and an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion.
"Inaiah kind of brought everybody up a little bit," says Miller of the Haunted Windchimes leader. "It was like: 'Hey, we're doing this, you can do it too. But you have to treat your art with respect.'"
Miller describes ElVado's producer as "a young kid who's very old on the inside."
"He was just a great positive inspiration. Every time I'd start wigging out about something, he'd calm me down. He's about as patient as it gets."
As for live shows, Miller says he's most comfortable these days playing cafes and the occasional small theater.
"It's really hard for a guy like me to go down to the Triple Nickel and sit down and play," he says. "It's all about the environment, and I've learned that.
"You have to play the right gigs and be honest with yourself and know where you fit. It's amazing how many people don't."