I grew up in a musical family, in the middle of five kids. My mother is a classical pianist and organist and piano and music teacher, and my dad was very musical, a good singer and played harmonica. We kids all learned musical instruments, too. By 1963, my older sister, MaryAnn, and brother, Alan, were both playing guitar and we were listening to a lot of Folk Music, starting to get into Country Blues, Old-Time and Bluegrass.
I attended the Saturday night concert at the 1963 Philadelphia Folk Festival when I was 12, and in one evening saw Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, Hobart Smith, Elizabeth Cotten, Mike Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, and most important for me, Mississippi John Hurt. John Hurt's music made a big impression on me, but no bigger an impression than his personality did. He was so comfortable with who he was, and so engaging. I sent away for his first post-rediscovery album on Piedmont and listened to it all the time. One morning, I woke up early, took my brother's guitar out into the living room and figured out John Hurt's Casey Jones from the record. It was the first thing I ever played on the guitar. For the next three years, I didn't have a guitar of my own, but would play on anyone's guitar whenever I had the opportunity.
I was very fortunate where and when I grew up, in southeastern Pennsylvania in the '60s and with the support I got from my parents for my interest in music. There was a great Country Music park, Sunset Park, where we would go in the summer and where I got to see all the great Bluegrass bands of the period--Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse, Flatt and Scruggs, Reno & Smiley and others. In addition, the Philadelphia area had great coffeehouses, the Second Fret in Philadelphia and the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, as well as the Philadelphia Folk Festival and the Swarthmore College Folk Festival. As a result of the very active scene and my older siblings' and parents' willingness to get me to these events, which they often attended too, by the time I graduated from high school I had seen a kind of Who's Who of Old-Time and Country Blues performers, including the New Lost City Ramblers, Maybelle Carter, the McGee Brothers and Arthur Smith, Son House, Skip James, Rev. Gary Davis, Shirley Griffith, Connie Williams, Bukka White and many more. I was additionally fortunate in having an older brother who was a very good guitar player that I admired very much (and still do), and who set a good example in terms of working on music, and in growing up near the Barenberg family, in which three of the kids, Russ, David, and Lynn, studied guitar with my sister and then my brother. Russ Barenberg, who of course has become a tremendous flat-picking guitarist, and he and his brother David and I kind of grew up in our teen years playing music together and attending these music events.
I got my first guitar (a Martin 0-16 New Yorker) at the age of 16 and began working out Country Blues from records in earnest. I especially admired John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb in those early years and worked on their music a lot. About the time I graduated from high school, in 1969, 2 re-issue labels started, Yazoo and Biograph, which were much more active in putting out releases than the earlier re-issue labels, Origin Jazz Library and RBF, had been. Through the Yazoo and Biograph re-issues, I became aware of the music of Blind Blake and Bo Carter, and began to focus on their music quite a lot, in addition to the music of many more obscure artists.
I transferred to Cornell University after my freshman year of college and was delighted to find a very active music scene. I was soon recruited to play electric bass in a Bluegrass and Country band, Country Cooking, with Russ Barenberg, Peter Wernick on banjo, guitar and vocals, Nondi Leonard (later Joan Wernick) on vocals, and Tony Trischka on banjo. We soon specialized in Bluegrass. Two of the founders of Rounder Records, Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton, were Ithaca residents at that time and were interested in recording the band. For the band's first album on Rounder, we additionally recruited Lou Martin on mandolin and Kenny Kossek on fiddle, recording an all-instumental album. For the band's second album, Barrel of Fun, Andy Statman replaced Lou Martin on mandolin. Other fine musicians who passed through Country Cooking while I was with the band were Frank Greathouse, Ron Rutowski and Greg Root. Thinking back on it, I think Country Cooking set a precedent that has continued hold true for me up to the present day, which is that I have always seemed to end up playing with the very musicians I would choose if given the oportunity to do so. I have been incredibly lucky in this regard.
Rounder Records also wanted to record me doing a solo album, as did Blue Goose Records, after Stephen Calt, who heard me play at a party in Ithaca, New York, recommended my music to Nick Perls, the founder of Yazoo Records and Blue Goose Records. I began to record solo albums, recording one for Rounder (Let's Go Riding) in my junior year at Cornell, and one for Blue Goose (First Degree Blues) the summer after my junior year. I began to do some touring and performing while still in college and continued after graduating, but didn't give much thought to the necessities of making a living or much of anything else other than playing music and trying to get better at it. As the '70s wore on, I ended up recording five solo albums, two for Blue Goose and three for Rounder. My musical interests shifted during the course of the decade, and I became more interested in Jazz. My second album for Blue Goose, How About Me, featured some Jazz standards as well as country blues, and by the time I did my second and third albums on Rounder, Safe Sweet Home and Biding My Time, I had stopped including country blues on my records and in my performances. I had one more group endeavor in the '70s, a band I really liked called Heartlands, with Russ Barenberg, Tony Trischka, Matt Glaser on fiddle and Rex Waters on bass.
The other musical life-changing event for me in the 1970s was being asked to teach at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop in 1976 and each summer after that, through 1980. At PSGW, I discovered a vocation for teaching, which I had done privately before, but never to groups, and made a group of friends who remain so to this day: Stu Herrick, Richard Scholtz, Laurel Bliss, Cliff Perry, and Jack Hansen, among others. I also became familiar with the Pacific Northwest, where I moved, to Seattle, in 1983.
By the time I moved to Seattle, I had pretty much stopped performing on any kind of regular basis, though I still taught privately and at music camps when I had the opportunity. I had found that the life of a touring solo artist was not for me, and I hungered for musical collaboration. Once again, I was lucky to form a band with some wonderful musicians, Wide Awake, featuring Scott Nygaard on lead guitar, Julian Smedley on violin and Cary Black on bass. We were all writing a lot and it was exciting doing acoustic Jazz (NOT Swing). I was working a lot on becoming a good rhythm guitarist and accompanist and enjoyed functioning in that capacity. Unfortunately the band never recorded an album, and Scott and Julian moved to the Bay Area, but the band and playing with those musicians was a really important thing for my development.
As I moved into the '90s, I began playing in an acoustic Jazz trio, Catwalk with violinist Paul Elliott and mandolinist Tom Moran, doing all original material, and I think we learned a lot together about writing and about small ensemble playing. We recorded a CD in 1994, and it was exciting to move into the CD era and begin putting out recordings again. I also was performing with the Portland-based singer Rebecca Kilgore, and she and I put out a cassette in the early '90s, which we reissued on CD with additional cuts in 1998. In the mid-90s, I began to perform in a duo with the great mandolinist John Reischman, and our first CD came out in 1998. The wonderful and versatile violinist Ruthie Dornfeld moved back to Seattle in 1996, and she and I started a duo and put out a CD in 1998. In fact, in 1998, I had three different CD runs delivered to my apartment in one week, something I never expect to have happen again.
All through the 1990s and into the new millenium one of my most important musical activities has been getting together and playing with guitarist Gary Larson. We've never put out anything, but it has been a great thing to play with someone over a long period of time with no commercial expectations around it, just for the fun and learning of the activity. It has been huge for me. I had played with so many great lead guitarists, like Russ Barenberg and Scott Nygaard, that I doubted my ability to express myself as an improvising lead guitarist. To the extent that I am able to do that now, I am conscious of that ability coming from the sessions with Gary. He and his wife Toni have been dear friends to me.
Moving into the post-2000 world, John Reischman and I did a Japanese tour in 2001, where I met a Japanese fan and friend, Kazi Goda and his wife, Keiko. Kazi queried me as to why I had stopped making solo recordings. I had many reasons, none of them particularly good, and he looked me in the eye and said with great surety, "You HAVE to make a record." So I did, Hey There, a collection of Jazz Standards that I recorded in 2003. In the meantime, John and I had recorded our second album, The Bumpy Road. In this same period, Ruthie and I started a band with two wonderful Finnish musicians, mandolin virtuoso Petri Hakala and bassist and jawharp whiz, Tapani Varis. We went four years with annual visits and tours alternating between Finland and the US and put out an album called Freshet, named after one of my tunes. I was also performing in this period, since the mid-1990s in a country blues trio with Orville Johnson on mandolin and dobro and Grant Dermody on harmonica. We had first performed together at the Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop, where we had all taught since the mid-1990s. In 2006 we put out our CD, Deceiving Blues.
In this same period, I was getting to know and to fall in love with my wife, Ginny Snowe. Being with Ginny has been the most important thing in my life. We got married on July 8, 2007, but before we did we recorded the CD, You Fascinate Me So, a collection of Jazz Standards and Brazilian classics, featuring her singing with my guitar accompaniments.
I just put out my first CD of blues material since the mid-70s, This Old Hammer, and to a great extent, I owe my renewed interest in Country Blues to a website called WeenieCampbell.com, started by some long-time attendees at the Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop, most notably John Dodson. Having a community engaged with Country Blues reminded me how much the music meant to me and how much I loved it. I am now deeper into that music than I've ever been, I think, and am enjoying learning more about it all the time.
If it's true that time accelerates as we age, I'd better watch out, because it is whizzing by. If you've made it this far in this bio, you have some impressive stamina. Thank you for your interest.
All best, John Miller