In my humble opinion, there’s no one writing better songs right now than John R. Miller. The West Virginia native has been an underground icon for years now, and is the walking, talking definition of a song-writers songwriter. It’s no coincidence that his touring buddy Tyler Childers is always letting the world know on his Facebook how special John’s work truly is.
John has toured extensively over the last decade, both with his past bands and now with his backing band, the Engine Lights. His first band, The Fox Hunt, was an up-tempo hybrid of old-time and bluegrass who toured as far away as Ireland and Japan, in which John played multiple instruments (upright bass and guitar) and handled shared vocal duties. He also fronted the seminal underground rock band Prison Book Club, which released a few EPs (2009’s ‘Required Reading’ and a 2012 split with Uncle Benji and the Restraining Orders) before Lexington’s Emperor Records released a self-titled full length this past April.
John has since moved on to focus more on his solo career. He has released two albums. His latest release, “The Trouble You Follow,” is being recognized as one of the best albums of 2018. He’s also the consummate road warrior, playing shows of all types in support of the album. I recently caught him at his sold-out Red Barn Radio Session in Lexington, and it was incredible. This was my first Red Barn show, and it went above and beyond all expectations.
Located at Arts Place near Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington, Red Barn is a weekly radio show that airs every Wednesday and focuses on the great music that our Commonwealth has to offer. They have featured some incredible artists over the years…most notably Tyler Childers before his rise to national prominence. The setting for Red Barn Radio is incredibly unique. The building itself looks like a typical downtown office building, but once you get inside, it is anything but. The stage area takes place in what looks like an old observatory, with less than 100 seats in front of a staging area for the bands. Above you is a circular balcony overlooking the stage area, which reminds me of a medical/classroom observatory.
The show itself is much different than a typical concert, as well. Since it is being both live-streamed on social media and for radio, there are lots of breaks for sponsorship promotion, as well as multiple interludes where the host asks the performer questions about their music and background. It makes for a unique musical experience; one that is thoroughly enjoyable for fans of the artist, because not only are you treated to a very intimate performance, but you also get to hear the artist interact and give some insight on their background, touring cycles, etc. John is naturally quiet and doesn’t do many interviews, so getting insight on his musical beginnings and his latest projects was really cool.
The entire set up was fascinating and is a breath of fresh air compared to your typical concert experience. Another aspect that I loved, the folks in the room are the kind of people you want to attend acoustic shows with. No cell phones buzzing, no conservations about how much so-and-so drank last night over the music…the crowd is there to take in the show and nothing else. The Red Barn community seems to be a close knit one, with a lot of familiar faces in the crowd including fellow musicians, promoters, and venue owners. It’s not the bar crowd, but rather the salt-of-the-earth people from the Kentucky music scene who are there to truly appreciate the performers.
Everything about the show that night was incredible. The band was as tight as I’ve ever heard them…Chloe Edmonson and John Clay are regulars in Johns band, and he had some help on the mandolin/guitar and upright bass playing from John Looney and Andrew Brown, respectively. John’s setlist for the night was phenomenal. In addition to playing songs off his two releases, he also played a handful of brand-new tracks. The new songs included “Old Dance Floor” and the back-beat driven “Shenandoah Shakedown”, both of which showcase his immense songwriting prowess.
In the latter, he proclaims “The hills move like lungs/The river speaks in tongues/And I am not alone…” which seemingly talks about a man finding peace within himself in nature, but the song also paints a more dire picture in other places – “Saw you tremble/All wrapped up in a towel/Afraid to go home.” John’s lyrics are cryptic parables, leaving the listener to decipher their own interpretation of what each song means, but hopefully taking something meaningful from it.
Getting to see him in a situation like Red Barn was truly special, because that is the type of setting that lets him shine the brightest. His music is meant to be appreciated in stillness, letting you absorb the full weight of his words. I’ve seen him in bars before where the background noise tried it’s best to make the show unbearable, and in my opinion that’s not how you enjoy someone like John. Red Barn was the perfect venue for him, and if you ever get to see him in a subdued, respectful environment like that…it’ll absolutely blow you away.
For more information and to see the complete show schedule for Red Barn Radio, be sure to visit www.redbarnradio.com.
Guest contributor, Jon Grace, currently serves as Tourism Director with the Bell County Tourism in Kentucky. Jon helps organize the Middlesboro Levitt AMP concert series, providing musical entertainment across multiple genres. In his free time, he enjoys attending concerts with his wife, as well as entertain others with his Audio Outlaws broadcast every Monday from 8-10pm on WRIL. The broadcast features outlaw and classic country, Americana, bluegrass, southern rock and and blues. Jon has contributed several stories to Kentucky Country Music to help highlight the best festivals, concerts, albums, and adventures from here in Kentucky.