JOHN R. MILLER, THE DESLONDES
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John R Miller is a true hyphenate artist: singer-songwriter-picker. Every song on his thrilling debut solo album, Depreciated, is lush with intricate wordplay and haunting imagery, as well as being backed by a band that is on fire. One of his biggest long-time fans is roots music favorite Tyler Childers, who says he’s “a well-travelled wordsmith mapping out the world he’s seen, three chords at a time.” Miller is somehow able to transport us to a shadowy honkytonk and get existential all in the same line with his tightly written compositions. Miller’s own guitar-playing is on fine display here along with vocals that evoke the white-waters of the Potomac River rumbling below the high ridges of his native Shenandoah Valley.
Depreciated is a collection of eleven gems that take us to his homeplace even while exploring the way we can’t go home again, no matter how much we might ache for it. On the album, Miller says he was eager to combine elements of country, folk, blues, and rock to make his own sound. Recently lost heroes like Prine, Walker, and Shaver served as guideposts for the songcrafting but Miller has completely achieved his own sound. The album is almost novelistic in its journey, not only to the complicated relationship Miller has with the Shenandoah Valley but also into the mind of someone going through transitions. “I wrote most of these songs after finding myself single and without a band for the first time in a long while,” Miller says. “I stumbled to Nashville and started to figure things out, so a lot of these have the feel of closing a chapter.”
Miller grew up in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia near the Potomac River. “There are three or four little towns I know well that make up the region,” he says, name-checking places like Martinsburg, Shepherdstown, Hedgesville, and Keyes Gap. “It’s a haunted place. In some ways it’s frozen in time. So much old stuff has lingered there, and its history is still very present.” As much as Miller loves where he’s from, he’s always had a complicated relationship with home and never could figure out what to do with himself there. “I just wanted to make music, and there’s no real infrastructure for that there. We had to travel to play regularly and as teenagers most of our gigs were spent playing in old church halls or Ruritan Clubs.” He was raised “kinda sorta Catholic” and although he gave up on that as a teenager, he says “it follows me everywhere, still.”
His family was not musical — his father worked odd jobs and was a paramedic before Miller was born, while his mother was a nurse — but he was drawn to music at an early age, which was essential to him since he says school was “an exercise in patience” for him. “Music was the first thing to turn my brain on. I’d sit by the stereo for hours with a blank audio cassette waiting to record songs I liked,” he says. “I was into a lot of whatever was on the radio until I was in middle school and started finding out about punk music, which is what I gravitated toward and tried to play through high school.” Not long after a short and aimless attempt at college, I was introduced to old time and traditional fiddle music, particularly around West Virginia, and my whole musical world started to open up.” Around the same time he discovered John Prine and says the music of Steve Earle sent him “down a rabbit hole.” From there he found the 1970s Texas gods like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver, and Blaze Foley, the swamp pop of Bobby Charles, and the Tulsa Sound of J.J. Cale, who is probably his biggest influence.
As much as the music buoyed him, it also took its toll. “I always prioritized being a touring musician above everything, and my attempts at relationships suffered for it,” he says. Miller was also often fighting depression and watching many of his friends “go off the rails on occasion.” He says that for a long period he did a lot of self-medicating. “I used to go about it by drinking vodka from morning to night for months on end,” he says. “I shouldn’t have made it this far. I’m lucky, I think.” Ultimately, the music won out and Depreciated is the hard-won result of years of self-education provided by life experiences that included arrests, a drunken knife-throwing incident, relationships both lost and long-term, and learning from the best of the singer-songwriters by listening.
For the creation of the album Miller joined forces with two producers who shared his vision for a country-blues infused record: multiple Grammy nominee Justin Francis, who has worked with everyone from Leon Bridges to Kacey Musgraves, and Adam Meisterhans, a renowned guitarist whom Miller has known since their days as roustabout musicians in West Virginia. They recorded Depreciated in the legendary Studio A of Sound Emporium in Nashville. Miller says the studio’s “killer gear and lived-in feeling” enhanced the sound but most importantly it provided plenty of space for the band to be together. “It’s important to me to have a relationship with the people I’m working with,” Miller says. The crew is a well-oiled machine that is given the opportunity to shine throughout the album: Meisterhans adding guitar along with Miller, Francis bringing in congas and Wurlitzer, Chloe Edmonstone offering a plaintive fiddle, John Looney on mandolin, Jonathan Beam providing bass, Russ Pahl’s shimmery pedal steel, John Clay on drums, and Robbie Crowell playing the Wurlie and Hammond B3.
We’re driven into Miller’s world by steady drums, a thudding bass, and steering electric guitar in “Lookin’ Over My Shoulder,” a song that perfectly captures going back to your old haunts after a breakup. Right away the many layers — sonic and thematic — are revealed as we continue on into “Borrowed Time,” a song that feels like a smoky bar-room but is also Miller at his most profound, pondering about “listening to that eternal engine whine.” Its ghostly electric guitar and percussion begs for two-steppers. More variety kicks in with “Faustina,” a lovely prayer to the most recent saint that shows Miller in seeker mode. “Shenandoah Shakedown” is a four-minute epic with its river that “speaks in tongues” and a “sky frozen black” but also intimate in its exploration of a relationship crumbling. “Coming Down” is perhaps the thematic heart of the album, asking “Don’t you wish you could go back home?” and exploring that question in elegiac tones with stand-out harmonies between Miller and Edmonstone. The breakup is further explored in the deceptively lively “Old Dance Floor,” which is answered in the keep-your-head-up anthem of “Motor’s Fried” before the intricate character study of a woman who “grew up too fast in the moonlight” in “Back and Forth,” which features memorable turns on the fiddle and mandolin. There’s the calming instrumental track “What’s Left of the Valley” that is an elegy for a region, an ode to searching for used cars called “Half Ton Van,” and finally, the melodic mastery of “Fire Dancer,” which may be the most complex and psychedelically-influenced track on the album that allows the album to land on a place of self-acceptance, with a narrator ready to go forward stronger and wiser.
The eleven songs, all penned by Miller, provide an album that stands strong as an entity but also provides tight singles that announce a major new voice. Miller possesses a rich voice, a flair for leading a band, and perhaps most of all, a startling ability for songwriting that results in Depreciated being an album that will have widespread appeal. Miller has achieved that most difficult yet most important thing: presenting the universal in the specific, paying attention to the cool beneath the pines along the rivers of the Shenandoah Valley while also pulling the camera back to reveal the longings that unite us all. — Silas House
We shed old skin in order to evolve and move forward. We let go of who we were in the past and embrace who we’re meant to be now. The Deslondes have taken such steps as not only bandmates, but as brothers. The New Orleans quintet—Dan Cutler, Sam Doores, Riley Downing, Cameron Snyder, and John James Tourville—have weathered ups, downs, and everything in between only to strengthen the bond between them.
Infusing everything from saxophone, flute, and synth to string arrangements and a full drum kit for the first time, the group naturally progress and evolve in real-time on their third full-length offering, Ways & Means [New West Records].
“The title reminds me of being young, getting into the music business, going through everything, and coming out of it,” Riley observes. “We’re taking a look right, left, and back at ourselves.”
“We were letting go of a bunch of old dynamics that left us burnt out,” adds John James.
“However, we’re focused on being productive and on the other side.”
The “other side” might just be their brightest yet. The Deslondes revealed their self-titled debut to widespread tastemaker applause during 2015. However, they really hit their stride on Hurry Home in 2017. Right out of the gate, Noisey proclaimed, “The Deslondes have found a comfortable sound to create art in, and it serves them well,” while Rolling Stone noted, “The Deslondes’ take on country relies on a gritty, grimy mix of early rock ‘n’ roll and lo-fi R&B.” In addition to praise from American Songwriter, Paste, The Boot, and more, the record closed out the year on Uncut’s “Favorite Albums of 2017.”
Then, the musicians opted to quietly take a break. In the meantime, Sam shared his self-titled debut as Riley also served up his solo album, Start It Over. Maybe it was something in the air, but 2021 seemed like the perfect moment for the boys to pick up where they left off.
“I reached out to everybody individually,” recalls John James. “Dan’s got kids, and I’ve got kids. We’d been touring for a long time. Once I called, it seemed like everyone was really into it. We were excited about doing it again.”
“I was in Lawrence, KS visiting my folks at the height of the Pandemic,” Sam remembers. “I was walking down Massachusetts Avenue on a Sunday morning and wondering what I had left to give the world. Perhaps, I was experiencing a mild existential crisis from living off unemployment and facing the cancellation of my album release tours. Luckily, my phone rang. John James asked how I’d feel about making another Deslondes record with so much genuine enthusiasm it was contagious. We all owe it to him. Instinctually, a resounding ‘Hell Yes’ came out of my mouth.”
Missing the camaraderie, the guys congregated at old haunt The Tigermen Den. Together, they worked out the songs before they entered the Bomb Shelter with longtime producer Andrija Tokic. This time around, members brought in a host of ideas and agreed upon the process before recording.
“We came to some personal agreements about how everything was going to go down in advance,” Dan elaborates. “From experience, we realized what we liked and who was good at what. In terms of the studio, it was probably the easiest album we’ve ever made. Usually, we’re too busy touring to put a lot of thought into pre-production and ideas. This was definitely the most prepared we’ve ever been beforehand.”
The preparation shines on the likes of the first single “South Dakota Wild One.” On the track, harmonica wails over acoustic strumming. Simultaneously, Riley’s grizzled and gruff delivery simmers above a slow burning beat punctuated by a soulful lead.
“It’s a nostalgic song about getting into music, traveling, and running into the special people who were around then, but aren’t around now,” notes Riley.
Elsewhere, the opener “Good To Go” saunters on airy electric piano towards a heavenly and hummable saxophone solo.
“If ‘South Dakota Wild One’ was the beginning of traveling and playing music, ‘Good To Go’ is where we’re at now,” Riley continues. “We’re still out here. We’re still good to go. The songs bookend each other.”
Then, there’s “Dunes.” A twang-y riff underscores a fifties-style melody as guitar echoes. “It’s about the arc of a love affair—a relationship that went wrong eventually,” Dan says. “It explores the symmetry of a relationship and how things come full circle in our life.”
The dreamy “Five Year Plan” nods to Harry Nilsson with its dusty bliss, plinking keys, and cinematic orchestration. Album closer “Hero” takes flight on soaring slide guitar and wistful vocal delivery.
“I grew up in a real tight-knit family in the country,” Riley goes in. “We all pitched in to take care of my grandmother at the end of her life. We’re our own heroes to our families and friends. I needed to write the song to remind myself you can be your own hero. If it helps me, maybe it will help someone else.”
In the end, The Deslondes draw on their own familial union to forge a similar connection with listeners.
“To us, this is family,” John James leaves off. “It’s a part of our lives. When you hear our music, I hope you feel like you’re hanging out with us. The band’s back together now, and it just feels good.”
“Riley, JJ, Dan, and Cam are my brothers,” Sam concurs. “We’ve all been through so much together. I don’t think any of us will have that experience with another group of people again in our lives. Sometimes, we drive each other crazy of course, but we’re family. I’d take a bullet for any of those geezers.”