You need only glimpse the title of Dean Miller’s new album to suspect that the object perched on his shoulder is not an epaulet. He’s named the album Platinum, a term generally reserved for a record that’s sold a million copies. In this regard, Miller is demonstrably premature.
Then there’s the song “Music Executive,” which closes out the album. In it, Miller depicts a narcissistic oaf who’s more interested in keeping a hair appointment than discovering the next Garth Brooks.
Now recording for Koch Records — after surviving aborted startups at Capitol and Universal South — Miller has learned to joke about his Music Row tribulations, the most tenacious of which is being compared to his famous father. “[They say], ‘He ain’t no Roger Miller,’” he says, “and I’m not even trying to be. It would just be nice if someone allowed me the chance to be original and do my own thing.”
Well, that’s exactly what Koch has done. In addition to writing nine of the 11 songs on Platinum, Miller also produced the album. He’s delighted with the results, and he has every right to be. His songs are engaging and stimulating (despite the prevailing tone of remorse), and his production is spare, tight and imaginative. His voice has the hard, assertive edge of someone who’s firm in his opinions.
Miller says he met no resistance when he proposed his title to the executives at Koch. “I just basically said [to them], ‘For once in my life, I’m determined to have a Platinum album.’”
That’s an understandable goal given his jagged career path. Miller emigrated from Los Angeles to Nashville in 1990, when he was 25 years old. His expectations, he admits, were considerably rosier than the terrain. “When I moved, I naively thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just whip in here, get a record deal and get famous,’” he says with a self-deprecating laugh. “It didn’t work that way, and it certainly doesn’t work that way.”
Miller coined the term “deceptive accessibility” to describe the tantalizing distance Nashville keeps between the dreamer and the dream fulfilled. “You can see [stars and other important music industry folk] in the grocery store,” he explains, “but it doesn’t get you any closer to a deal.”
However, Miller did finally get a deal with Capitol Records, and in 1997, the label released his first album, Dean Miller. It would be eight more years before he had his second one. The debut album, which Gregg Brown produced, yielded three chart singles — “Nowhere, USA,” “My Heart’s Broke Down (But My Mind’s Made Up)” and “Wake Up and Smell the Whiskey.” None of these went higher than the mid-50s on the charts.
Miller fared no better after he signed with Universal South Records in early 2002. The label recorded an album on him (a joint effort by Tony Brown, Brent Maher and Richard Bennett) but never released it after the exploratory singles — “Love Is a Game” and “The Gun Ain’t Loaded (But I Am)” — failed to spark any significant interest at radio.
With plenty of downtime to mull it over, Miller believes he knows why he’s had such a difficult time getting his music out.
“I don’t think anybody has ever committed to what I do a hundred percent,” he ventures. “There’s been a lot of one foot in, one foot out. ‘We’ll make a record, but we won’t do a video.’ ‘We’ll do a single, but we won’t do this.’ It’s been a half-and-half kind of thing. Then I’ve had some bum deals, like everybody getting fired at my record label. Honestly, too, I think there’s a big [negative] comparison to my father”
As soon as he’s asked about them, it’s clear Miller has grown weary of the inescapable radio tours, that peculiar institution in which beginning artists travel to stations across the country to sing personally to often-indifferent program directors and disc jockeys.
“I’ve done three different radio tours, for three different projects in three different contexts,” he says. “It’s hell out there, believe me. It’s tough sometimes. You literally end up playing in kitchenettes and conference rooms. … I would suggest that you drive down to a radio station, go into their kitchenette, get about four or five people and sit there with a guitar and play. See how that feels. Does it feel natural? And — then — wait to see if they say they’re going to add or not add your record. It’s weird, believe me.”
In his press bio, Miller recalls being broke in Nashville and crashing No. 1 parties along Music Row for food and drink. That raises the question of why the son of a songwriter whose catalog is as rich as the late Roger Miller’s is would ever go hungry. “I don’t participate in my father’s catalog,” he says without elaborating.
Unlike many children of famous fathers, Miller does not flaunt his relationship. Indeed, he seems reticent to talk about it at all. But Roger Miller was such a beloved and looming figure in country music, it seems artificial not to speak about him.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Miller concedes, “but it’s certainly more of a blessing. It’s opened doors. Most days, somebody comes up and tells me something wonderful about my dad. I could have had Charles Manson for a dad. I happened to have a guy everybody loved. I have not heard one negative story about my dad. I’m just happy that I had a good dad. It’s been great.”
Of the two “outside” songs on Platinum, one is a cover of the elder Miller’s 1966 hit, “I’ve Been a Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll Be a Long Time Gone).” The son was a mere 4 months old when it charted, and he says it has always been one of his favorites. “My dad used to do it very rarely in his shows,” he notes, “and I just loved it so much. I would beg him and beg him to do it. He would say, ‘Oh, it’s too much work.’ It’s hard to sing, obviously. So finally when I had the chance, I said, ‘I’m gonna cut it.’”
Producing Platinum, Miller says, was both a joy and a piece of cake. “I just have so much studio experience, and I’m so clear on what I’m about. I know the right people to call and how to communicate with them. I’ve worked with them so much. … I tried not to overthink this album. One of the curses of the music business is that everybody is overthinking and test marketing. You know, people don’t listen to music that way. People listen to music from their heart, and they get a gut reaction when they first hear it. We need to follow that and base our business plan on that.”
Despite all the bumps and bruises, Miller says he still finds the music business grimly amusing. “If you don’t laugh, you end up bitter,” he declares. “And who wants to be around somebody bitter? I try to find the humor in everything. I can find humor in the darkest of subjects. I honestly think if I’d made it years ago I’d have been more of a jerk — because I was a less talented person then. So I’m glad I’ve been through the hardships. They make you have character.”
And is there anything else the public should know?
“I’m single, and I’m looking for a date,” Miller deadpans. “That’s pretty much the impetus behind the record. I’m hoping to meet girls through it. So if you could put that in, it would be great.”