For Woodford County native Miles Miller, Sturgill Simpson’s drummer, the path to playing gigs around the world began with a YouTube video recorded in his parent’s basement.
For many Kentuckians, the name Sturgill Simpson — beloved local punk-country dive bar singer turned internationally lauded, Billboard chart-topping songwriting icon — evokes a strong sense of pride and general kick-assery.
Whether he’s singing a tear-jerking ballad to his recently born son or a deadpan ode to psychedelic drugs, something about the Kentucky native’s classic country voice and candid, unorthodox songs strikes a chord with a wide audience, even those who don’t generally describe themselves as country music fans.
His success has helped further establish Kentucky’s stature on the national stage. And, right by Simpson’s side, fellow Kentuckian Miles Miller is also helping to enhance that reputation.
The 23-year-old drummer and backing vocalist joined Simpson’s band four years ago. He not only drives the beat, but also serves as a leader in many other ways, as well, from communicating song selection to the rest of the band to keeping everyone on track with day-to-day tour details — even guidance on navigating Sturgill’s general direction. (“He knows what he wants, but it’s never going to be the same thing twice,” Miller says.)
Having acquired four new members in the last year — a new bass player and three horn players — it seems that Miller’s even-keeled nature and experience working and communicating with Simpson is an asset that’s welcomed by all members.
Miller’s closeness with Simpson is particularly striking during their live performances. Miller’s drum kit — he plays a Gretsch USA custom kit — is set up next to Simpson rather than toward the rear of the stage. The set up not only makes it easier for the two of them to see each other when singing harmonies, Miller explains, it also allows greater ease for Simpson to walk up to Miller and let him know which song comes next, at which point Miller alerts the rest of the band through his headset.
“We tried set lists but it just doesn’t work — it’s too computerized,” Miller says.
It might sound like a no-brainer for a young musician to jump at the chance to join up with the rare songwriter who’s achieved both commercial success and critical acclaim, but when Miller received an invitation to join Simpson’s band at age 19 he had to give the offer serious consideration before committing.
“Everyone in high school listened to the new shit — I didn’t know ‘old’ country at all,” says Miller, who was largely influenced by jazz drummers such as Stanton Moore and Joe Morello growing up. (Although sharing the stage with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in recent years has helped him ascend that “old country” learning curve rather quickly.)
While it’s natural to assume that Miller and Simpson’s connection goes back to Woodford County, where they each graduated from high school and spent a decent chunk of their formative years, credit for Miller and Simpson’s meeting actually lies with Nashville-based producer Dave Cobb, who connected the two in 2012 after recording Simpson’s debut solo album, High Top Mountain.
According to Cobb — whose production roster also includes Shooter Jennings, Houndmouth, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell — at the time he introduced them, he hadn’t even made the Kentucky correlation himself.
“I had forgotten Miles was from Kentucky, and just completely remembered his skill set,” says Cobb of the young drummer, whom he had met only once, several years prior. “When I called him up, I realized ‘man, [he] and Sturgill are from right down the road from each other.’
“It was just the perfect fit,” Cobb says.
Understandably, that phone call from Cobb with an invitation to join Simpson’s band came as a bit of a surprise to Miller, who at the time was finishing a summer gig as a drummer for a Colorado-based musical theatre company. Though it likely wasn’t as big a surprise as the first time he heard from Cobb.
That call came a few years earlier when Miller was a high school jazz band percussionist and Jack White fanatic who liked to record videos of himself playing drums over his favorite songs. Cobb happened to stumble across one of those videos online while looking for a drummer for an earlier project.
“He was playing a Raconteurs’ song on YouTube — I think he was 16 or something. It was obvious he was in his parents’ basement,” Cobb says. “The skill he had at 16 was just unbelievable. I don’t think I’d ever seen anybody that advanced at that age.”
As Miller’s older sister, Violet Marotta, recalls, the drummer’s impeccable rhythm was evident from an early age. As a kid he would spend hours watching pop videos and choreographing his own dance routines, begging his dad to film him or his older siblings and their friends to watch him (full disclosure: I just so happen to be one of those older siblings’ friends, and have nothing but the fondest memories of being a high school senior wholly entertained by 7-year-old Miller’s fully realized basement dance routine to ’N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye”).
“He was good. Like oddly good at feeling the beat and rhythm and recreating that without much studying,” Marotta says. “When I watch him now, I can still see his meticulous brain working and picking up every note and deciding what to do with it. His timing is unreal. Always has been.”
Miller’s home-recorded YouTube performance impressed Cobb enough that he invited him to come down to Nashville and perform in person. Miller thought it was a joke at first, but after realizing it was a legitimate request, his dad pulled him out of school for a day or two, packed up the truck and drove him to Nashville, where Miller set up his kit and played for Cobb in a hotel conference room.
“I was blown away with him, but I didn’t really quite know what to do,” Cobb says. Several years later, something triggered the producer’s memory of that spirited kid whose dad — himself a trained pianist and vocalist, who named his son after Miles Davis — had driven him down to Nashville to play drums.
Cobb called Miller toward the end of the summer to let him know he thought he finally had a gig for him.
“… and the rest has been totally fuckin’ crazy,” says Miller, who has spent the last four years traveling the world with Simpson, and recorded on his last two albums.
Even though it may not be what initially brought Miller and Simpson together, their Kentucky connection is something that has undoubtedly strengthened their bond.
Kentuckians like to stick together — we’re very mindful of who we are and where we’re from.
“We’re the only two Kentucky boys in the band, and growing up in the same town, you have experiences that you share together that most people in the world don’t,” Miller says. “Kentuckians like to stick together — we’re very mindful of who we are and where we’re from.”
Miller wears his state pride loud and proud — from a bass drum head emblazoned with the Kentucky state seal to regularly donning Kentucky-themed tee-shirts during high profile television and festival performances. He says that he grew up in awe of Kentucky’s natural beauty, hearkening back to family camping trips to Natural Bridge and Cave Run Lake, and that appreciation for his home state has only intensified as he has seen more of the world.
“Having been to 46 states and to a good portion of Europe, I still consider Kentucky to be a place with the bluest skies and the greenest grass,” Miller says, adding that his experience playing with Simpson has enhanced his state pride in other ways — particularly as it relates to the state’s wealth of musical history.
“Sturgill definitely expanded my thoughts of Kentucky, mainly through the musicians that came out of there,” Miller says. “I got to know of a lot of great artists that came from Kentucky, and traveled [here] and played, and it’s become of part of who I am today.”
Ever the producer with a sharp musical ear, Cobb has a slightly different perspective on how Miller and Simpson’s Kentucky roots complement each other.
“When Miles sings background vocals, it seamlessly blends with Sturgill,” he says. “When they sing, they sing with the same accent.”
Concert photography by Saraya Brewer
Following sold out back-to-back performances at Lexington’s Opera House and Louisville’s Palace Theatre in May, Sturgill Simpson and his band will perform in his home state again this fall, at Ashland’s Paramount Arts Center on Sept. 15.
Head on over to the shop for kick-ass Kentucky for Kentucky gear, including the “120 Counties” tee Miles sported during Sturgill Simpson’s set at the 2015 Forecastle Festival and the “Heaven Must Be a Kentucky Kind of Place” tee he wore during a recent appearance on The Colbert Show.