Grammy winner brings music to MU

Self-taught musician Bill Miller’s work reflects his American Indian roots.
Monday, November 7, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:48 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Growing up, Bill Miller didn’t dream about becoming a Grammy Award-winning musician. He didn’t have a slew of music lessons. And he didn’t choose to make music professionally until he was in his early 20s.

“I just loved it for what it was,” Miller said about his pre-professional music experience.

Now, after 28 years in the music business, a Grammy and five Native American Music Awards, Miller will bring his show — a mixture of rock, blues, folk and American Indian music — to Jesse Auditorium at 8 p.m. Tuesday. His solo performance will include acoustic guitar, Native American flutes and turtle shell rattles.

Miller’s instrumental ensemble varies from tour to tour and ranges from duos with bass, percussion or piano to a six-piece outfit using much of the same. But he has a special connection with solo acoustic work. Miller described seeing solo concerts from artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen as “pretty intimate” and a unique experience.

“My roots are solo acoustic like Bob Dylan,” he said.

Miller grew up on the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in northern Wisconsin and began playing guitar, flute and trumpet when he was 9 years old. During his years playing in college bands, audience members pulled him aside after shows and told him that he had a gift for connecting with people.

Miller’s turning point occurred when he was 21. He said he went to a Pete Seeger concert that “invaded my soul” and made him realize he should make music his career. Miller began to put his American Indian heritage and tough childhood experiences into his music.

“When I started to do that,” he said, “magic started to happen.”

Except for a few lessons on the trumpet, Miller mastered his craft by ear and learned from musicians he performed with on tour, including Richie Havens and Arlo Guthrie.

“It’s living it that taught me,” he said.

Miller writes most of his own songs, and he said he brings a hand-held tape recorder with him when he travels to note inspirations for songs and stays in “pretty funky places” to capture a real slice of life.

“There are a lot more stories there than the 14th floor of the Hyatt Regency,” he said.

Miller varies his sets for each performance depending on what he feels and what he thinks the audience feels.

“I don’t structure my show. I just know I’m going to show up and play music,” he said.

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