Walking Tall Down ‘The Red Road’ : Native American Singer Bill Miller’s Music Celebrates His Heritage While Soothing the Pain of Racism
Subjected to the vilest forms of racism and the pain of being raised by an alcoholic father, Native American singer/songwriter Bill Miller’s early years are wrought with memories he’ll never forget, although at times he wishes he could.
Miller’s latest album is called “The Red Road,” and as a child, that road was a boulevard of broken dreams. But always, Miller, who performs at UC Irvine tonight, has walked the path proudly.
Miller, 39, grew up on the Stockbridge-Munsee Indian reservation in central Wisconsin, experiencing the unique beauty of his people’s culture and the profound ugliness that can sadly come with being born different from the white majority. Though he now celebrates his heritage through music with dignity and self-regard, there were times when just being born an Indian was a real test of faith.
“I was spit at, called ‘Timber Nigger,’ ‘Brown S--t,’ this and that,” he said in a recent phone interview from a Los Angeles motel room. “I saw my dad attacked by white racists throughout my childhood, saw it turn him into an alcoholic and kill him. I got my life threatened a couple of times at truck stops. These guys grabbed us by the back of the hair and said, ‘You want a haircut, Indian?’ People would do weird, violent things to us. I grew up with a lot of pain and hatred.”
Miller turned to art and music to soothe his soul. Drawing and painting--and later, singing and songwriting--became a passion. He moved to Nashville in 1984 to connect with the city’s music scene. Nine years and three independently released albums later, Miller was signed to Warner Bros. Records.
“The Red Road,” released last year, is an intensely personal album, and, in some ways, a very painful listening experience. Miller’s singing, guitar and flute bespeak the torment he has experienced but do so without becoming self-pitying or preachy. There’s depth, beauty and honesty to the album, and a sense of wisdom born of his pain. In many ways, Miller said, recording the album was a catharsis.
“When I was making the album, my dad called me to tell me he was dying, so I had to go back and forth between Nashville and the reservation. Basically, a lot of priorities changed in my life by doing that. I think it really changed my writing, changed the attack of the album. I was home with the singing style I grew up with, the powwow singers, the area that influenced me not only musically, but life-wise. I buried my father a week after I finished the album. It was very intense--it’s a piece of my life I’ll never forget.
“Before, I had a major chip on my shoulder, and I couldn’t release it,” he continued. “I had a violent temper. I think my father’s death was like a cancer getting off of me. I faced off with him, asked him, ‘Why are you like this? What happened to you?’ It was a cleansing thing to bury my father and realize that I had to go on, I had seeds that needed to be planted.”
For the “Red Road” sessions, Miller bused musicians from the reservation into the Nashville studio--drummers, flutists and tribal singers to add authenticity to his folky sound. Producer Richard Bennett also helped to keep the album spiritually pure, chasing off Nashville hacks looking for a payday.
“A lot of session people starting coming into the project, and Richard just basically ran them off,” Miller said. “He told them, ‘Hey, if you’re thinking about your next session and where you’re gonna go next, you can get out of here. If you’re not personally involved with this project, if you don’t understand it, then leave.’ He laid it on the line.”
Lack of understanding is something that Miller has more than his share of experience with.
Last fall, he wound up opening for the Butthole Surfers and Pearl Jam at a two-night benefit concert to save the Indian spiritual lands of Mt. Graham in Mesa, Ariz. On the first night, the boisterous, impatient grunge crowd booed Miller, threw things and spit at him. It was a night he remembers as “just sickening--the longest 30 minutes of my life.” Night 2 would be different though, thanks to Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s lead singer.
“I was packing up after that show, just disgusted, you know. There was this little scraggly guy standing there, just sort of checking me out. I said, ‘Can I help you?’ He said (Miller affects a high-pitched, wheezy voice at this point), ‘Yeah man, yeah man! Can I talk to you?’ He started raving about my music and how much it had moved him and how he really appreciated it. I’m like, ‘No problem.’
“He said, ‘You look kind of bummed out, man.’ I said, ‘I am bummed out! This audience treated me rude; they wouldn’t even listen to me. I thought a little respect for the Native American was due here, that’s what this was all supposed to be about. I don’t even feel like playing tomorrow night.’ He said, ‘You’ve got to, man!’ I said, ‘Who the heck are you?’ He said, ‘My name is Eddie, man. Eddie Vedder.’ I go, ‘You’re Eddie Vedder?’
“And he just looks at me, and he jumps on me, he’s hugging me and hanging on me. The crowd sees this--it’s still light out--and we’re still on stage, and they start shouting for him, and he turns around and yells, ‘Shut up!’ ”
The next night, Vedder lectured the crowd before Miller’s performance on the meaning of the event, and on according Miller some respect and listening to him. The night passed smoothly.
Another high-profile fan of Miller’s is Tori Amos, who, after hearing “The Red Road,” invited him to be her opening act on this tour. The pair have been on the road together since March, with dates currently scheduled through September.
Miller believes he knows the reason why fans and musical peers seem to reach out to him for strength.
“I have this passion to tell the truth. Whatever Tori went through with, you know, being raped and some of the things she dealt with in her life, and whatever Eddie Vedder has had to deal with, with his painful relationship with his father and whatever else--maybe they just connect with me.”
* Bill Miller opens for Tori Amos tonight at 8 o’clock in UC Irvine’s Crawford Hall. $20. Call (714) 856-5000.