Grammy Award-winning Bill Miller paints words with music
Growing up in Wisconsin’s Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation, Bill Miller, the son of Mohican-German parents, claimed the earth — the nearby woodlands and water drew him to a tradition of natural appreciation. As a young Fush-Ya Heay Ka (meaning “bird song”), he discovered the joy of music on a Zenith radio that picked up AM stations. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show transformed the 12-year-old into a dreaming rock star, and he asked his dad for an electric guitar.
But rock expanded into other aspects of musical appreciation as Bob Dylan wore across Miller’s soul. He cast aside his time in teen rock bands and grabbed onto folk music and storytelling. An acoustic guitar in tow, Miller began studying fine arts and digging deeper into spirituality through sound.
Miller tells his kids, “I grew up in a time when I didn’t have MTV, an iPod, a cell phone or video games … I had a guitar.”
The guitar wasn’t the only instrument that impacted his life. He bought a handmade Native flute for $50 in the late 1970s as an art piece. “I didn’t know it would lead to soundtracks [Sex in the City and Disney’s Pocahontas], a Grammy or TV commercials,” Miller says, having chosen music not as an avenue for fame or fortune, but as a realm of self-expression.
“I was writing songs more as a journal,” he says. “With an alcoholic father who died of it [in 1993], the music saved my life in so many ways. I could have been working in a casino or be a suicide victim, which happens to many of us on reservations.”
Miller began playing the Native American flute in 1979 and left the reservation to study art at the Layton School of Art and Design in Milwaukee and, later, the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse. Seeing Pete Seeger in concert solidified his decision to move to Nashville, Tenn., as a singer-songwriter. Since his journey began, Miller has recorded 15 albums, including his 2005 Grammy Award-winning Cedar Dream Songs. He has also shared stages with Tori Amos and Arlo Guthrie.
Miller works as an advocate for education and inspires children of all ages. He performs worldwide, travels the college circuit and teaches racial reconciliation from a Native American perspective, as well as flute workshops, drawing and painting sequences. “I’m into racial reconciliation,” he says. “The word ‘tolerance’ is used for the weather; it shouldn’t be used for human relationships. Tolerance doesn’t work, but reconciliation is possible.” He recently helped Native American Indian Voices of Indiana establish the Sindoqua Scholarship for women at IUPUI.
Miller’s dedication to his racial heritage reigns true in everything he does — from residencies to composing to artistry. His “Spirit Horse” series of acrylic paintings have been sold online (www.billmiller.net), and his fresh approach to folk, blues and rock music has also garnered him five Native American Music Awards.
Working with John Carter Cash, the Man in Black’s son and film producer of Walk the Line, Miller has been recording a new album at the House of Cash cabin. The upcoming album, Shades of Black, will reflect Johnny Cash’s love of the Native American people, as well as Miller’s love for Cash. Meanwhile, Miller’s also working on several new paintings.
“Every year, I try to [finish] at least 30 new paintings,” he says. “After Indiana, I’m flying to Harvard University to give them some of my guitars, flutes and artwork for a permanent exhibit of Native American art.”
Miller says Native American art has three parts, which he displays in subtle ways: function, beauty and spirit. “The most important part for me is spirit,” he says. “It took a lot of my life and slow moving dreams to get it all together. I’ve seen too many miracles not to be a believer in God — the Creator — and man. I believe we can still heal broken families … I believe in educating yourself.”
But Miller’s form of education far exceeds that of simply handing out information packets at colleges. He knows how to get his hands dirty. In Las Vegas and similar communities, Miller brings the Native perspective to 17- through 20-year-old, heavy-duty heroin addicts in week-long workshops known as “spirit rides.” Miller brings them face to face with beauty and suffering from all perspectives through horseback riding and hiking trips across mountains and through inner-city slums. “I’ve seen the underbelly of that town,” he says. “It’s sad. The kids [will lose] unless people come in there and help them.”
For Miller, the most important aspects of his work lie within the realms of spiritual and ancestral connection, as well as creative self-expression. “Transformation is the most important part of the journey,” he says.
What: Bill Miller, The Luckies
When: Friday, April 13, 7 p.m.
Where: Southside School Auditorium, 1320 W. 200 S., Columbus, Ind.
Tickets: $10; kids under 5 are free