Depreciated (Rounder) is a remarkably accomplished opening statement from a guy who pretty much came out of nowhere. Except that it’s not technically a debut. John R. Miller has been dancing around a serious career as a solo artist for several years now, and it all comes together in one of the best singer/songwriter efforts of 2021.
“It’s been sort of convoluted,” says Miller after a long day of hauling bricks at a construction site near Nashville, his adopted hometown. “Basically, it’s been about a decade and a half of being in and out of bands and touring around in different projects.”
Depreciated has the West Virginia native confidently standing firm with Tyler Childers and Ian Noe in the recent upswell of self-effacing, Appalachian-bred talent eager to integrate and celebrate the region’s folk and bluegrass roots. Miller’s first performance experience came with the Fox Hunt, a traditional mountain-string band that was the landing place for his initial experiments as a songwriter.
“When I was younger, I was into melodic punk stuff like Jawbreaker and Lagwagon,” he says. “The Fox Hunt’s fiddle player introduced me to John Prine, and then I found some Steve Earle records I really liked. Those two were the entry points for my headlong dive into that music—especially the Texas stuff.”
Miller ventured out on his own with 2014’s Service Engine, essentially a collection of demos. Two tracks on the album, “Motor’s Fried” and “Back And Forth,” found their way onto Depreciated. Another older tune also made the cut—and for good reason. A simmering alt-country barnburner with a nifty “Pancho And Lefty”-ish chord progression, “Old Dance Floor” is the album’s hard-luck fulcrum. (“Tell that lady to go to hell if the heat don’t come back on,” Miller heaves at one point in his rough-hewn baritone.) Check out a live version of the song below.
“That song’s goin’ on 12 years old now,” says Miller. “I never felt like I got a fair recording of it. It’s one of those ‘you can’t go back home because it isn’t there anymore’ kind of songs—the ephemeral nature of place.”
In 2018, Miller recorded The Trouble You Follow with a backup band he dubbed the Engine Lights. “It was basically self-released, and I did it in a buddy’s studio just north of where I grew up with some good friends,” says Miller. “It was just a means to keep working and keep touring. Most of the time, I’ve been a bass player as my main way to make money, and I was going back and forth between home and Nashville. But I was just gettin’ really drunk and letting myself slide further than I wanted to. Nashville felt like a good place to start fresh.”
A more permanent move to Nashville was facilitated by his role as the bassist for another string band called Locust Honey, which featured his girlfriend, Chloe Edmonstone. Her gutsy fiddle leads are a key component of Depreciated, which was produced at Nashville’s Sound Emporium by Justin Francis (Leon Bridges, Margo Price) and guitarist Adam Meisterhans (Tyler Childers). “It’s a real living-room vibe, but with a lot of cool stuff in it,” says Miller.
Depreciated landed at Rounder after another producer heard the album being mixed and passed it along to the right person. “My plan was always to self-release, but one of the guys at Rounder got ahold of it, and it turned out they wanted to release it,” Miller says. “It still feels pretty surreal to me.