In the ‘60s, when labels were signing acts like The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Big Brother and the Holding Company (fronted by Janis Joplin), Johnny Winter and such, the question used to go, “Can white folk sing/play the blues?”
Considering how drastically the number of black blues artists has dwindled and that black audiences have abandoned their own music in droves, one had damned well better hope so. Or that somebody—if they’re brown, yellow or plaid with polka dot stripes—can play this stuff and play it right.
Submitted for your consideration one purveyor of rural blues with urban soul on the side, Nathan Miller. White as rice and talented as the day is long, singer-songwriter Miller plays something called lap guitar. Basically, it’s slide (bottleneck to old-schoolers), only it sits across the legs and is picked a la pedal steel. He does so with such appeal that he sold just this side of a 100 copies of his CD Bombs and a Hustle at last month’s Fine Line release gig alone.
If you like Johnny Winter, you’ll have no problem getting next to Nathan Miller. Miller’s playing has that same swaggering, raw-edged power. He drops the hammer hard and mean, especially on such raucous standouts from his repertoire as the churning “Helen Keller” and butt-funky “Music’s My Religion.”
Added to which he’s a sharp, hard-hitting lyricist. “Something’s amiss/ And I missed it/ And I think a lot of us kissed it goodbye/ Blissfully welcomed the high tide/ As it washed us all away/ And we did nothing to stop it/ Our star spangled is mangled/ Tangled in error God’s on our side/ But he don’t really care/ It’s a given/Terrorism/ Cannot be judged by color/ Red orange yellow/ Blind and deaf like Helen Keller.” The reference is by no means an idle one.
Asked about the inspiration for the song, he reflects, “There’s a certain optimism in it. I wanted to make a statement, but I didn’t want to just say there’s things wrong. [Because] I don’t have the answers, either. So, blind and deaf like Helen Keller is an optimistic statement. She overcame that, so why [can’t] we?”
And then there’s: “Music’s my religion/ The holy trinity is mixin’/ A love like an addiction with no needles / Or whisky sippin’/ Love made a connection with the strings that I’m hittin’/ Music’s my religion … proof that there is a God/ Look mom my hands make ‘em stand at attention/ Oh Jesus please believe us music leads us to a new dimension/ Oh Christ I just might shine a light in the dark of a question/ Music’s my religion and I never have to mention.”
Miller says of this cut, “It’s just kind of like a philosophy. You don’t need to believe in a god or anything else like that. It’s just basically saying if I believe in music, then there’s proof that there is some sort of high power. When I play, it kind of takes me to a different place. It’s almost like goin’ to church.”
Before Bombs and a Hustle, Miller put out the EP Nashville and made the rounds first as guitarist for The Syndicate, and then fronting Nathan Miller and The Silence. He’s just now gone on his own, sometimes doing acoustic sets, sometimes with a backup band of Dan Ristrom on bass, Peter Day on drums and percussionist Miles Hanson. He’s opened for, among others, Mint Condition, The New Congress, The Gear Daddies, Root City Band and Lowen & Navarro.
He began playing young. “I’d say from about the time I was 13 until I was 20, or so, all I listened to- and all I played- was blues music.” Cutting his teeth on Albert King, Albert Collins, Son House, Charley Patton and, later, guys like Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Chris Duarte, Nathan was relentless, getting friends together to jam whenever he possibly could.
Eventually, he put his own stamp on things, coming up with an original sound. “I just kept playing all the time, thinking all these licks, all these songs, this entire style, has just been done to death. My blues heroes wouldn’t want me copying them; they would want me to innovate, to make my own blues.” So he did, focusing on songwriting.
The rest is just so much long hard work leading to a promising juncture. He has landed a coveted slot, playing Thursdays at Bunker’s—a gig that didn’t turn out too bad for past Thursday night regulars. Kip Blackshire went from Thursday night headliner to running around Europe selling out shows left and right. The New Congress got in there after Blackshire and will work out at the nationally televised L.A. Music Awards in November. It’d be no miscarriage of justice should Nathan Miller be next in line to catch that kind of attention.