It was the Fall of 1997 and I was a college sophomore, eagerly beginning a new school year and furiously expanding my musical palette. A local college bar featured live music a couple of nights a week, and on this particular evening I was psyched to see the V-Roys/Six String Drag double-bill, an admittedly high profile alternative-country show for the times. Considering my campus was in a remote mountain town and I wouldn’t have to drive a few hours for the show, my excitement grew.
“What time do shows usually start around here? I thought we’d be on by now,” a dapper young man in a black suit and bright red tie, questioned as I sidled by the bar. Not yet 21, and devoid of any sort of fake I.D., I was lounging in that area casually watching a playoff baseball game on the bar television and myself getting impatient for the music to commence. “Not sure,” I sheepishly admitted. Being new to this whole live music thing hardly made me an expert, but the man in the suit apparently considered me somewhat of one, so I gamely lied: “But I think around 11:00 is when the opener comes on.” “Shit, that’s late,” replied the man. “But, hell, what do I care. They’re all Saturday nights to me!”
Turns out that was my first introduction to Scott Miller, singer-songwriter, guitarist, and one-half of The V-Roys, a sharply dressed, tightly knit, and raucously fun Tennessee outfit whose debut album had been spinning heavy in my Sony Discman throughout those initial college months. I sheepishly complimented Miller on his band’s music and told him I was looking forward to the show. He thanked me, popped a beer and disappeared into the dim and murky corridors of the makeshift backstage area. A few hours later, I returned to my dorm room mesmerized and blown away by the crafty songwriting, witty banter, and unadulterated ferocity with which both bands put into their performances.
My fandom increased and I caught The V-Roys several more times in concert over the next few years, until I heard the news that they were no longer a group. Seeing that this dis-assembly occurred right around the start of the millennium, which also coincided with my graduation, I have always regarded The V-Roys with a strong sense of wistful nostalgia. Their band lifespan nearly mirrored my collegiate lifespan, and anytime their songs pop up on the iPod (no more Discman these days) I immediately think of that fruitful evening in the mountains and Scott Miller and crew giving it all they had for a small, sweaty assembly of onlookers on a nondescript weeknight.
However, as the years pass, new music tends to replace some of the old, and previous classics make way for new ones. It had been a while since I really paid attention to The V-Roys, so it is with great interest and fanfare that I greet their best-of, career-spanning retrospective Sooner or Later. While co-songwriters Miller and Mic Harrison are still out there performing as solo acts and writing new material, they have distanced themselves from the band they jointly helmed, often leaving fans clamoring for that vintage material when they roll through town. Digging into Sooner or Later reveals a treasure trove of great stuff. Though the band only released two proper studio albums, 1996’s Just Add Ice, and 1999’s All About Town, in addition to a swan-song live release from 2000, Are You Through Yet?, The V-Roys tunes flow by so breezily that one would think they had at least twice the output.
Chronologically sequenced, Sooner or Later’s first half offers highlights like the jangly fan favorite “Guess I Know I’m Right”, Harrison’s caustic break-up tale, “No Regrets”, and classic “cry-in-your-beer” bummer romps like “Pounding Heart” and “Goodnight Loser”. The second half reflects the band’s country leanings with the Ronnie McCoury-touched “Mary”, the “John Henry”-like muscle of “Over The Mountain”, and Miller’s sentimental farewell ode “Fade Away”. Of course, there are many other shoulda-been hits featured here which leaves no filler or weak links. And that even includes the bonus material, which often clutters otherwise solid retrospectives. Here, in addition to some unreleased tracks, the band tackles Buffalo Springfield’s “Burned”, Tom T. Hall’s “That How I Got to Memphis”, and the Lieber and Stoller penned “Smokey Joe’s Café”, a deft nod for a band who secretly had some soul buried underneath their country-rock façade. And as a final bonus, the audio has been given an extra re-mastered punch, serving the band’s sound well and accentuating the back-beat provided by bassist Paxton Sellers and drummer Jeff Bills.
In the late 90’s, the alt-country scene seemed poised for a major breakthrough. In an unorthodox universe, Son Volt, The Backsliders, The Bottle Rockets, Damnations TX, Six String Drive, and The V-Roys would have been given a larger audience with which to spread their musical ecstasy. Instead, long-time fans can still appreciate these gems in smaller venues and recreate the glory with re-releases and anthologies. Not exactly a recipe for fortune and fame, but the musicians involved were never in it for those reasons anyway. I think the fact that the music has held up this well over the years is satisfaction enough for them. Long live bands like The V-Roys!