MUSIC: Sky’s the limit for blues musician Derek Miller
Washington, D.C.—Derek Miller stepped onto an international stage in early 2010, making his Gibson Firebird guitar blaze in a solo at the Closing Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. And by laying down tracks for a new album with the band of late blues guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan, Double Trouble.
At 35, and soon to release his third album, “Derek Miller with Double Trouble,” Miller’s rock roots trace back to a fellow Native guitarist—Link Wray, the Rockabilly Hall of Famer credited with inventing the power chord central to rock, heavy metal, pop and blues music. The Shawnee musician’s distorted electric guitar keyed hits like 1958’s “Rumble.”
For Miller, who once felt like a misfit kid playing roots rock in the era of rap, Wray became “my beacon of light.”
“I found a kinship with Link Wray,” Miller says. “There was so much intensity, passion and furiousness.”
Miller used to say his singing voice was made of “lots of whiskey and cigarettes.” Since completing rehab three years ago for alcoholism and drug addiction, Miller now says the music he makes with his voice and guitar emerges from the experience of growing up Mohawk on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, and later making his way in Toronto’s thriving aboriginal music scene.
“I have never backed away from being a Native artist, but for me it is now about crashing through this glass ceiling of being a Native artist,” he said.
Miller started performing at age 13. In the late 1990s, he toured with Buffy Sainte-Marie. In 1999, he co-produced Keith Secola and the Wild Band of Indians’ “Fingermonkey.” Two years later, Miller released “Music is the Medicine,” which earned the Juno Award for Aboriginal Recording of the Year. With a pause for rehab and recovery, which Miller notes in his iTunes bio, in 2007 he released the album, “The Dirty Looks.” On it, Miller uses “compressed, modern sounds on otherwise standard blues songs like “Devil Come Down Sunday,” said Chris Turner, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Last month, Miller performed at the museum, covering songs made popular by some of the Native artists represented in the current exhibition, “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture.” These included Peter La Farge’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” which Miller made his own.
“Derek always reminded me of Jimi Hendrix, a Mohawk Jimi Hendrix,” Turner said. “But take a song like “End of the World,” where he fools you, laying down a nice, subdued setting—almost sacred. Then out of nowhere comes this little wah-wah guitar warning before he punches you in the gut with a Link-style power chord.”
The new album’s first single, “Damned if You Do,” is a duet with Willie Nelson, who had not heard of Miller before. But while recording at Nelson’s Pedernales Recording Studio near Austin, Texas, Miller and the band talked a gardener into slipping Miller’s disc to the singer. After a listen, Nelson agreed to record the duet.
The song could be either man’s personal tale of drinking whiskey all night and wondering if morning will come. The new project somewhat inadvertently turned out to be a concept album, Miller says, telling the story of a man falling in love with a woman, and the terrible violence in the wake of love falling apart.
“At the end of the story you think the man is going to make a choice of killing her and her lover,” Miller said. “It’s dark, with songs leading up to that, and you don’t know whether it’s murder-suicide or just murder in the end.”
To Miller, “it’s Americana, or it’s Native Americana, really.”
For his new album, Miller is sporting his black hair cut short and slicked back, like his hero Wray in the 1950s. Miller never met Wray, who died in 2005 at 76. But he talks about starring in a Wray biopic.
Whether a movie ever gets produced, Miller is the latest in a long line of musicians to take inspiration from Wray. Like The Kinks, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young—many of whom are lobbying for Wray to be put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—Miller aims to ride his inspiration to the sky.
“When I think of Link Wray, I am an eagle and I let the wind blow me where it may,” Miller says. “That is the freedom that encompasses Native America. It encompasses what America was trying to do when it borrowed our constitution, our freedom of creativity. It is the freedom of inspiration to let your mind travel like an eagle.”
By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service