Bill Miller: It's no dream - he's Indian country's best
Bill Miller has played Kennedy Center and the biggest stages in Indian country. This February night he is playing Alligator Alley, a dark and smoky blues bar in Sunrise, Fla.
Miller, 45, is an accomplished musical artist, the most decorated in the short history of the Native American Music Awards, a poet with words and a flash with his star-emblazoned Takemine guitar.
He looks a little out of place, even uncomfortable, bantering with drunks at the bar, as he follows the all-Indian Blackhawk Blues Band from Oklahoma. Later, he explains his awkwardness.
"I thought it was a tough room, to be honest," Miller says from a $39 motel room somewhere in Southern Illinois, one week later. "I'm a recovering alcoholic, so I don't like playing in bars."
Miller, who topped the bill at Discover Native America in St. Petersburg March 4-5, has had his share of lows. Born of a Mohican father and German mother, he was raised on the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin.
"My father was a Korean War veteran who was messed up most of his life," Miller recalls. "He was a ? point man with medals he threw into Lake Winnebago. He was an alcoholic, like so many of our people. But he was also an artist. He would paint for drinks. It's painful to see someone get torn by disillusion. But it's always amazing to see how art can come out of that pain."
"The biggest things that have happened in my life, I never got to share with my father," he says plainly to a crowd of several hundred in St. Petersburg, "? when I got signed to Warner Brothers records in 1993. He died that same year of alcoholism. When I got my first Native American Music Award, I couldn't share it with my dad, so I hold these up to him because to win is one thing, but to lose is much more intense and it means more in my life because I've lost more than I've won."
The details of that scorecard are scars that shape the songs he sings. "I was more worried about getting home on the weekend to help my mom fight my dad than I was about finishing social studies or getting a letter," Miller says. "I never won a letter, never went to a prom or a dance, never had a girlfriend, never dated in high school. I was a very mediocre student. I aced art classes and music, but everything else was down. If you had asked anybody in my graduating class, "Who's Bill Miller?' they didn't know me.
"Of course, they all say they know me now. I was very much like any kid in that situation - a wallflower, not speaking like I do now, never sharing."
"I'm a big dreamer," Miller says over juice in a waterfront motel in St. Petersburg. "I had dreams after I visited the Ghost Dance site in Nevada where Wovoka had his visions." He says descendants of the 19th century prophet to the site invited him. The experience inspired "Ghost Dance."
"That song changed my life," Miller says. You've got to be ready to go in the desert when somebody asks you. But you've also got to pace yourself. I've gone the other way where all I've done is chase dreams. I think if you allow dreaming into your life that allows you to dream, to live it out, to pray. People don't know what prayer is.
Miller lives with his wife and five children in Nashville, where he just signed a recording deal with Vanguard. He won five (Native American Music Association) Nammy Awards in Albuquerque, N.M., last November, including Artist of the Year, Best Male Artist, Best Folk Artist, Songwriter and Song of the Year for "Ghost Dance."
"That's probably the greatest thing that ever happened in my life."
The honors confirmed what other, more commercially successful non-Indian musicians had known about for some time. Miller is a major talent capable of transcending stereotypes. When U-2's Bono heard Miller's "Red Road" album for the first time, he reportedly wept.
Two months later, pop singer Tori Amos booked Miller as the opening act for her "Under the Pink" tour. He has also played with Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam at an Apache Indian benefit in Mesa, Ariz.
"I'm anything but a commercial artist," Miller says. "I get air play underground, but I'm not a pop name. Still, it's nice to be identified by them, to get to their level.
Miller has high hopes for Native artists - altered or not - in the new millennium.
"I see a change in the youth. The little bit of us are influencing the kids to come out of their shells and play music, and be the new Indigenouses, and play jazz or rock or rap or whatever that may be. I'm excited about the future.
"It reminds me of a cocoon," he says of Indian music. "First you see the webs in the trees, then you can see the chrysalis. We've metamorphosed into a beautiful thing ? I really feel strongly that we're going to be embraced by world music. We've not really a part of New Age. We're not a bunch of tree-hugging hippies. We're the blood in this country's veins, the red in the flag. And we have songs."
For his part, he's going to sing them loud and clear and sober.