Not everyone gets to ride in a tour bus. For the musicians who have to drive and load their vehicles themselves, touring is difficult and tiring work. And for many of these road dogs, those years catch up with you. West Virginia songwriter John R Miller's The Trouble You Follow confronts those demons. It's Miller's debut album with his new band The Engine Lights -- and you'd never know it was recorded in just four days.
Miller is one of the founding members of energetic string band The Fox Hunt and alt-country rock band Prison Book Club. More recently, Miller has toured with the Hackensaw Boys, Locust Honey, William Matheny, holding down the low end on bass. There's a good chance you're familiar with at last one of Miller's songs, though: Tyler Childers covered his song "Coming Down" on the 2018 reissue of Live on Red Barn Radio I & II. So the short recording time shouldn't surprise you: the Engine Lights are in fact an amalgam of Fox Hunt members and other West Virginia musicians who are stalwarts of the scene. Listening to The Trouble You Follow, you can feel in your gut that everyone is giving their all to Miller's love letter to the home he leaves behind to pursue his calling.
On this album, Miller intertwines his passions for old-time music and alt-country, creating a meditative album about leave-takings and the toll they take. Mostly, that toll is guilt. Miller details life in a small town and the misadventures that come with being far from home. On "Whale Party," Miller delivers a honky-tonk rendition of the Jonah and the Whale story. In the song, Miller situates himself in the figurative belly of the whale, determined to live off of his luck until it runs out.
It's when Miller slows things down, though, that we get the biggest payoff. While it's fun to party along with Miller and the Engine Lights, these more contemplative songs feel like a sucker punch. The final two songs on the album, "The Wheel" and "Strung Out," bring warm compassion to the kinds of regrets we all have. Ultimately, Miller seems to be acknowledging that the hard stuff is what we need to do in order to grow as people. On "The Wheel," Miller urges someone to do what they need to do:
Don't be afraid of leaving me
I'll always be in the bark
Of your oak tree
Ultimately, we'll always be a part of the ring in a person's tree of life. The question is, are we allowing those people to grow, or are we holding them -- or ourselves -- back? For Miller, he seems to have accepted that that growth is more important than regret.
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