You’ll find the phrase “No Asylum for Traitors or Cowards” on the cover of Scott Miller and the Commonwealth’s Reconstruction, a 20-track live review of their three-album discography which also includes a few choice covers and a brand new song. An unabridged translation might read: This music finds focus in authenticity over arrogance, uncovers resonant truths in history and relationships, and tells timeless stories that cut deeper than yesterday’s passing RSS feed. Traitors, cowards — you have no place to hide.
This warning is an apt summation of the values which guide Miller’s brand of earnest, heartfelt country rock n’ roll. Since his turn as frontman of seminal 1990s alt-country luminaries the V-Roys, he’s been perfecting — in both sound and lyric — the South-as-microcosm template. The guitars are typically crunchy and twangy, while the lyrics address archetypal lovers lost, liquor, and all things down home. Miller’s delivery is so damned impassioned and his songs so well-crafted that any disputes about innovation or uniqueness take a backseat.
Indeed, Miller screams a Neil Young lyric in the latter half of the album that serves to squelch any detractors: “I got rock and roll / got country music playin’/ and if you hate that / you just don’t know what you’re sayin’!” This cover of “Hawks and Doves”, with its refrain of “good ol’ USA,” justifies Miller’s approach and reminds us that there’s plenty of territory to explore here. As his “Freedom’s a Stranger” asserts: “We’re such a complicated nation / but we still play rock and roll.”
As with the best songwriters, Miller’s succinct refrains manage to encapsulate universal issues. There are comforting life lessons within a simple train song (“Amtrak Crescent”‘s line “When life goes wrong this train goes on and on”), while the shifting “Still People Are Moving” uses its title reflexively, playing off the motion and emotion within the verb move until the song itself climaxes. And the lyrics of “For Jack Tymon” read like a more sincere version of that faux Kurt Vonnegut commencement speech that gets passed around inboxes.
Reconstruction does little to deconstruct or re-construct Miller’s songs from their originally-recorded versions — although one does miss Patty Griffin’s contribution to “Saints Alive”. Overall, the live recording provides an appropriately jovial setting to showcase Miller’s self-deprecating drinking songs, like opener “I Made a Mess of this Town” and the newly unveiled sing-along fave “Drunk All Around This Town”. In fact, after hearing the audience cheering at the names of Southern towns during “Amtrak Crescent”, I couldn’t help but wonder why Miller didn’t include “Ciderville Saturday Night” in this collection — it’s a song that well-summarizes the good-time atmosphere his shows exude.
This excellently recorded album is a good starting point for those new to Scott Miller. It will delight long-time fans, too; the dusting off of the V-Roys’ classic “Arianne” brings back fond memories, and you can join the audience as it sings “Dear Sarah” — a letter from a Civil War vet to his wife — along with Miller. Reconstruction also features a heap of Miller’s humor, a Tom Petty cover and a hilarious hidden track that sacrilegiously celebrates the joys of earthly pleasures. Recorded in late 2006 at the Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee, these songs capture an artist who has added to the quality and decibel-level of Sugar Hill’s catalog since his debut on the label in 2001.