During Alex Miller's 2021 run on American Idol, Luke Bryan challenged the Lancaster, Kent.- based teenager to consider fresh perspectives on tradition-bound country music instead of over-relying on the throwback sounds of Merle Haggard and Ernest Tubb.
Miller heeded Bryan's advice during the creation of debut album Miller Time (out April 29 on Billy Jam Records): a collection of songs that chart a promising talent's creative growth while still hat-tipping his heroes.
"It's nice to have your own deal and not be stuck in this one certain thing," Miller told Wide Open Country. "Country music is an ever-evolving thing, and I'm just doing what I enjoy. It might come across as old-fashioned or traditional, but it's just what I love to do. It's coming from the heart, and it's genuinely me."
Industry veteran Jerry Salley, co-writer of Reba McEntire's "I'm Gonna Take That Mountain" and John Anderson's "I Fell in the Water," masterfully guided Miller as his producer and songwriting collaborator while amplifying the down-home charm that won over Idol viewers.
"One of the reasons I got an opportunity to work with Alex at all is because he kind of studied my history and did a lot of research on me," Salley said. "He realized early on that I wasn't going to try to change him. He was apprehensive that people were going to try to change him into something he's not. When I finally convinced him that I was going to try to grow him but still let him be himself, he got a little bit more comfortable."
"If [Miller had] gone to another producer, who knows what somebody would've done with him," added Ed Leonard, head of Daywind Music Group, the parent company of Billy Jam Records. "I call it kind of God ordained. They found each other, not by chance."
Salley spoke glowingly of Miller as an artist, likening current single "Through With You" to Blake Shelton's earliest country radio hits. He also lauded Miller as someone with larger-than-life magnetism that wins over others before they hear a single note.
"I don't know what 'it' is, but he's got that 'it' factor," Salley explained. "He's got what it takes to be star because of the huge personality that he brings with his talent. Once people see him, even if they're not crazy about his style of music, they fall in love with the guy."
Leonard shared similar sentiments about Miller as a performer and a person.
"He's such a unique talent, to have had at a young age the ability to sing like he sings and to play like he plays," Leonard said. "There's this old soul buried within this vibrant, young guy. It's easy to see why Luke Bryan fell in love with him."
A star-studded cast of Nashville session players, including Chet Atkins understudy Brent Mason (guitar) and longtime Bill Anderson collaborator Mike Johnson (pedal steel), elevated such smile-inducing tunes as western swing-flavored single "Don't Let The Barn Door Hit Ya" and '90s-style boot-scooter "I'm Done."
Miller closes the first chapter of his discography with two covers: a revved-up, Ricky Skaggs-style take on Keith Allison's "Freeborn Man" and a revival fire-igniting rendition of Hank Williams gospel number "I'm Gonna Sing" featuring Country Music Hall of Famers and Grand Ole Opry members the Oak Ridge Boys.
"To have legends like that on my record, the first one, I can't be more excited about that," Miller said of the Oak Ridge Boys. "They're all nice guys, and the fact that I got to be a part of them and they got to be a part of me is truly something special."
Milestones passed by Miller in between Idol and the release of Miller Time range from debuting at the Ryman Auditorium, where he sang a duet in July 2021 with bluegrass giant Rhonda Vincent, to graduating from high school, which frees him up for more on-the-job training as a touring and recording artist.
"I was wondering what life was going to look like for me after school, and I wanted to do music," Miller said. "That's what I've always wanted to do. The fact that I'm getting to do it is a blessing to me every day because I'd sure rather do this than write a term paper."
As for Miller and Salley's future plans, expect plenty more songs from a multi-generational working relationship turned friendship that allows both to push forward the time-tested country music they love.
"There is some kind of movement going on because there's are a lot of kids --and when I say kids, I'm talking Alex's age to late 20s and early 30s-- that really want to do traditional country music," Salley said. "I don't know where it's going to go or what's going to become of it, but I'm excited to get to work with some of these young kids who are sincere about learning more and trying to keep traditional stuff alive. It does my heart good."
Miller Time Tracklist
1. "Breaking The Bank" (A. Miller / J. Salley)
2. "Through With You" (A. Miller / J. Salley)
3. "Don't Let The Barn Door Hit Ya" (B. Whyte / P. Bogart / D. S. Wilson)
4. "Girls Must Be Clumsy" (A. Miller / J. Salley)
5. "Kentucky's Never Been This Far From Tennessee" (J. Salley / C.A. Wilburn / K. Miller)
6. "I'm Over You, So Get Over Me" (A. Miller)
7. "Boys In Uniform" (J. McBride / M. Findley / D. Ruttan)
8. "I'm Done" (A Miller. / J. Salley)
9. "Freeborn Man" (M. Lindsay / K. Allison)
10. "I'm Gonna Sing" feat. the Oak Ridge Boys (H. Williams)
READ MORE: 'For Love & Country': Three Takeaways From Amazon Music's Documentary About Black Country Artists
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