The Love Song of John R. Miller: A Review of The Trouble You Follow by John R. Miller

Sam Farahmand



I am idling off of Terminal Drive, in the lot right before it leads into Nashville International Airport, waiting for John to drive back in the car we’ve rented for the weekend to drive up to a wedding in West Virginia. The car I’m waiting in belongs to his girlfriend, the fiddler in the band the Engine Lights, the band that’ll be backing John after this weekend when he heads out on tour for their new album The Trouble You Follow, though she drove with us this morning so we could get the discount on the rental car from some card she has. I wait through a half an hour of vibrations, because it’s taking them even longer than they thought, trying to stare at nothing to pass the time, but there is rosin everywhere there isn’t dirt and there is dirt everywhere there isn’t dust and there is a can of sparkling water in one of the cupholders alongside a several hundred dollar sales order for a violin.

I stare up at the planes coming down through the clouds, louder than they look from here, and I’m happy I was able to help get one of his songs, Ghosts, a song with a rounded a b a verse structure like spinning in circles, on a video for the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s gallery opening for Wayne White. I am happy John sounded happy too while driving to the airport when I leaned forward up to the passenger seat and told his girlfriend about it too and John said something about those cardboard Wayne White sculptures stringed up from the ceiling, trying to show us what he meant by elbowing his arms up like a marionette.

I see John pulling into the lot with the rental car and while we move our belongings over I see the car has West Virginia plates and I think I might try to write a review of The Trouble You Follow, but I won’t tell him I spent the night before listening to his second album all about following hard acts a few years after his first, which, in between all the fiddling and the fingerpicking, John R. Miller sounds like he was born with strings attached.


This is before I realize I can’t write about John without writing about myself, because I can’t hear John’s songs without hearing myself in them. I have been following John for a few years now, on stage as a performer and in song as a fan, and it looks like I even followed him to Nashville since I started working for the Country Music Foundation in the oldest still-active letterpress printshop in America. I spend most of my days staring at the shelves upon shelves of movable metal type and woodblock letters, trying to feel less lost in my writing or at least trying to make some sense of words, which I suppose all of songwriting is merely twenty-six letters from C to C, though I’m happiest when the presses are running, because they are loud enough I can’t hear my head. I got ghosts in every room, John sings and sings again on Ghosts, but I had been feeling lost even before I moved here, though sometimes after work I’ll drive around in circles to feel like I’m back home in Los Angeles again or at least like I’m headed somewhere, but everyone else who lives here is as beautiful as they sound and even better looking than they are. When I’m driving around in circles after work in Nashville and I’m trying not to head home and I’m trying not to not at all, I’ll look in the mirror and always see some of the more beautiful blondes I’ve ever seen in the cars behind me and I wish they were even closer than they appear to be, though this is before John and I drive up together to the wedding in West Virginia.

This is before we lose an hour moving from Central Time to Eastern Time and before we talk about the death of the ego and the drive starts to feel like we’re sitting perfectly still and I can tell how much more time John has spent like this than I have, with what is supposed to be about an eight hour drive or so feeling a lot more like a symbol for the infinite stretching out in front of us than it does eight hours, while I wonder if the dot dash dot of the white lines on the road are trying to signal something to me.

This is before he tells me he stopped drinking because he was worried he would drink himself to death and this is before he tells me about leaving West Virginia, because he was pushing thirty and already pulling the petals off of the daisies, but still, he worries about having left, because he worries about the ones who leave never to come back again. I got spirits in my head, John sings and sings again on Ghosts, but it makes me think how the only bad people I have ever met in West Virginia are the ones who aren’t from there and it makes me think how going home again is as close as one can get to coming back from the dead.

This is before the six separate car crashes on Interstate 81 and before the drive takes us twelve hours from beginning to end, east through Tennessee and up from Virginia, under then over then up into Northeast West Virginia. This is before John tells me how he always used to drive down across the Virginia line to get gasoline because it was cheaper by about thirty cents and before he chews his way through the red tin of tobacco he bought before we left Nashville.

This is before the first drink I have on the weekend is a mouthful of moonshine and this is before I see John drinking a nonalcoholic beer while someone tells the story of how he used to keep a bottle of vodka in their medicine cabinet because he said it was medicine. This is before everyone laughs and before I think I should stop drinking again, but then the trouble for me was never about the drinking as much as it was about the again. I got apparitions in my brain, John sings then cuts short to, Apparitions in my brain, when he sings the line again on Ghosts, but I know John can handle his liquor a lot better than I can and I know he can also handle my liquor a lot better than I can. I think between all of the beers and the beard he has had since I’ve known him, I don’t know if I actually have ever seen his mouth, but I have to believe it’s there because of the voice that seems to have been there even before he was. The voice that sounds like it was already inside your ears before it came out of his mouth. The voice that sounds like before. I always did like the sound of the word before, because it sounds like something both will be and is for, though I wouldn’t know how much more before I can take in my life before I don’t like who I haven’t become. This is before things fall apart with the publisher that was supposed to publish the first novel I wrote and this is before I’m afraid my life has taken a turn for the Great American Never.

This is before I burn through the wedding weekend by kissing with one of the more beautiful women I’ve ever kissed with, if not the most beautiful in the state of West Virginia, and at least the one most likely to make a lung story short and the one with lips most like mine. Kissing with her feels like talking to her, in that both occasions leave me without words and both occasions leave me trying to find the right words while believing that the words are there somewhere in her mouth. This is before we talk together for long enough to forget what we were saying and before we start finishing each other’s cigarettes and before we talk about the things like spooky action at a distance and the time Johnny Cash burned down a forest filled with dozens of California condors, though kissing with her is the closest my mouth has come to sobriety in some time, but I won’t remember if she or someone else was telling me about This Is Water. This is when I realize I might be writing a review of The Trouble You Follow just to say I was kissing with one of the more beautiful women I’ve ever kissed with, but then again, every song is a love song and all the best parts of life are lived through the  mouth.

This is before John and I drive back to Nashville and before I see his first show to kick off the tour for The Trouble You Follow and before I order him a handful of nonalcoholic beers throughout the night because I want to know what it feels like. I know John has seen me at my worst, but I have to believe there is this sort of synesthesia for sin, where someone else’s sins can cross over and cross out your own. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time staring at all of the letters, because I am afraid I am better at writing about my life than I am at my life, but I have to believe there is this significance to the R in his name, the kind of R that can’t be caught in a circle, the R that shows John never is as much as he are, as much as he is John R. Miller that we might also be John R. Miller and that we won’t have to be. This is before I realize I don’t have the right words to write this review, but I’ll have to believe the letters are enough, though when I tell him this, this is after