'Jim Miller by family and friends': CD brings Bemidji music legend's songs back to life
BEMIDJI—Music legend Jim Miller died nearly six years ago, but his songs have come back to life in the form of a CD project that includes his wife, Kristi, and several of his friends and proteges.
The 10-song disc was recorded at studios in Bemidji and Minneapolis over the last couple of years. Kristi Miller and others involved in the project call it a labor of love and a tribute to a prolific singer/songwriter whose music and words touched countless fans.
After Jim died, "I would just walk around my yard and he was everywhere," Kristi said. "You lose a partner that you've been with for 40 years they leave a lot of stuff behind. Everywhere I looked, there he was. So I just thought, 'Well, you know he had hundreds of songs that he wrote. Let's do something.' He had a lot of music friends and other friends, so I thought why not."
One of those friends is Steve Kaul, a former Bemidjian who now owns Wild Sound recording studio in Minneapolis and plays with a band called The Brass Kings. Several of the songs were recorded at Wild Sound, including one called "Midnight Ride on an Angel's Breath," which features Kaul on guitar and vocals. It's a song Jim wrote while returning to Bemidji from a gig in Wisconsin on a cold winter night. Lyrics like "40 below again tonight" and 'Drive for a mile with the headlights off" paint a picture of that most listeners around these parts can relate to.
"I always loved the song," Kaul said. "I fell in love with the lyrics. Jim's always been an incredible wordsmith."
Kaul was pleased to be a part of the Jim Miller project. "My parents would go out dancing to Jim and Kristi's Known Only Locally band," Kaul said. "They were huge fans. They would bring home his music, so I got to know his writing and his music early on. I tried to steal as many things as I could from him. We got to play a couple of shows together over the years. I would learn some kind of life lesson each time I hung out with him."
Kaul remembers learning some valuable lessons from Jim, like the time they were playing a blues gig together at Hard Times in downtown Bemidji.
"We both took turns playing," Kaul said. "He'd play a lead and it was amazing. I took a turn and I tried to play all the great stuff I could think of, and it sort of fell flat. It didn't quite work. On the next song I took another lead and I kind of took a hint from Jim and I just played a couple of notes and I just hung on them and made the most of them. And the crowd went nuts. He looked over and in his gravelly voice and said, 'Yeah, sometimes less is more, huh?'"
Another friend who recorded on the CD is Eric Carlson, whose musical career got a boost from a simple compliment from the legend while Carlson was still in high school. Eric and his band, The Gaels, performed at an open mic night in Bemidji, just ahead of Miller's set.
"(Jim) got up on stage and he said, 'I always liked Irish music, but those Gaels kicked the hell out of it,'" Carlson said. "It felt so great. He was like a local legend for us. So we actually put that quote on our second album."
Carlson is featured on two songs on the CD. One of them, "Winnebago Love," which Jim wrote in the 1970s, is a song Carlson has been doing for several years.
"Before he died I picked that one up," Carlson said. "I would do it at weddings. The first time we played it, everybody was dancing at this wedding. It was like one of those songs that everybody just got up, and they didn't know it. That had no familiarity with it, they just loved it." He said people were coming up to the band and trying to use a song identifier app to try to find out what song they were playing. "And I wanted to tell them, 'You're not going to find it,'" Carlson said.
"I was just always inspired by Jim, especially his songwriting," Carlson added. "The lyricism and style just had a huge influence on me."
The CD also features other well-known regional artists like Ron Arsenault, Mary DuShane, Tom "Footy" Husting and Eddie Allen, plus several Bemidji area musicians. Kristi's sister, Miriam Tell, sings "A Thousand Words," a love song from Known Only Locally's original album in 1979. Miriam was in that band.
The last song, "Don't Come for Me," is the only one not written by Jim Miller. Kristi wrote it after her husband died at the age of 66.
"The song sort of wrote itself," Kristi said. "We (son Amos and Kristi) talked to Jim before he died. He didn't expect it, although he was in palliative care. But he kept saying all through his illness, 'I'm a dead man.' He was really a cynic. And so I wrote that into the song, 'Don't come for me because I'm a dead man.'
"When you lose a partner like that after all those years, they don't go away fast," she added. "Walking around my house, and it's still the case now after 5½ years, everything is him. The trees, his lawn chair out on the driveway, tools, chain saw. It's just all him."
And so is the new CD. It's available for $15 at Brigid's Pub in downtown Bemidji or by emailing Kristi at firstname.lastname@example.org.