Nearly 50 years ago the Steve Miller Band released the single "Going to the Country."
This year, Miller and company really are going, in a summer outing with country and bluegrass stalwart Marty Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives.
"I can't think of anybody better to do this with than them," Miller says by phone from New York, where the Milwaukee native now resides. There, he serves on the boards of Jazz @ Lincoln Center, where he's creating programs and curriculum on blues, country and Americana music, and the musical instruments department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"They're one of the best bands in the world," Miller, 75, gushes. "They're so great live. We've done some other things together in Nashville and at the Metropolitan Museum, so we've been playing together for the last few years and it's just a thrill to work with them and to bring them into this."
Among Miller and Stuart's projects was the Music From Appalachia shows last December at Lincoln Center, which were livestreamed and recorded for possible future release. The conversations about touring together have gone on for a while, and their Classic Rock Meets Classic Country Tour, as expected, features some on-stage collaborations between the two groups.
"I'm thrilled because I'll been taking mandolin lessons every day (from Stuart)," Miller says with a laugh. "I'm going to expose Marty and his guys to my audience. They've already come up to me and said, 'Oh, man, come on, we wanna do 'Jet Airliner!' Let's do 'Going to the Country.' It's just going to be a great time."
For Miller, the combination is a chance to move forward with the musicologist path he's followed since he was very young — at the feet of his father, a physician who was an accomplished recording engineer, and of Les Paul, a family friend who encouraged a 6-year-old Miller to pursue the guitar. The family's subsequent move to Texas brought more musicians into Miller's orbit via his father, including Charles Mingus and T-Bone Walker, and he began playing in bands in high school and at the University of Wisconsin.
After dropping out of school just six credit hours shy of graduating, Miller immersed himself in the Chicago blues community, playing with Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Buddy Guy, and forming a band with future Electric Flag keyboardist Barry Goldberg. After a brief stay back in Texas, he headed to San Francisco, where the Steve Miller Band formed in 1966 and began recording three years later, scoring a quick hit with "Living' in the USA."
"(The music) comes from everywhere and just melted together in these records I've done," says Miller, whose wife Janice is a musicologist as well. He had his biggest hits during the '70s, starting with the title track from "The Joker" in 1973 and then soaring with the back-to-back multiplatinum tandem of "Fly Like An Eagle" and "Book of Dreams" and a barrage of hits such as "Take the Money and Run," "Rock'n Me," "Jet Airliner," "Jungle Love," "Swingtown" and more. Miller was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016, but his scope is much broader than that, and with his current positions he's able to exercise those interests more than ever before.
"I wasn't really looking for this job (at Lincoln Center) and Wynton (Marsalis) took me by the lapels and said, 'I want you to do this for me.' 'Uh ... OK,'" Miller says with a laugh. "I said, 'What about Taj Mahal? He's smart. He knows everything,' but (Marsalis said) 'No, no. We want you to do it.'
"So I'm working on it, and it's coming along. It's gathering momentum. We've gotten some really great funding to develop actual courses and we're moving along. And it's amazing how fast time goes. It was three and a half, four years ago when we started it, and that's gone by, it seems like in six weeks. It's a fascinating trip."
While that's going on, Miller is also tripping through his own past. On Oct. 11 he'll release the "Welcome to the Vault" multi-disc and video collection, laden with unreleased material, which is the result of some heavy trolling through his archives. Miller himself is averse to that kind exploration, but he hired a crew to do the job for him and wound up being unexpectedly fascinated by what they discovered.
"Some of it's really, really, really good," Miller says. "It's not perfect by any means, but it's great. I've realized I'm just this absurd perfectionist and some of it is embarrassing and horrible, to me, and to other people it's really interesting. So it's not just what I think, it's what other people think and what's interesting to other people, and we're going to put it out."
After this year's tour, meanwhile, Miller plans to lay low while he works on his next musical statement, with a return slated for mid-2021.
"I'm at this point where I've been touring basically nonstop for 16 years, and I want to sort of stop and consider what's left to do in the time I have left, which is ... who knows?" Miller explains. "I just want to take about 18 months off and think about everything and write some new stuff and think about how I want to go out and how I want this last run to be.
"I've done this two or three times, where I've taken sabbaticals. I can't go away for three or four years like I've done before, but I'm going to take time off and re-think what I'm doing. I'm gonna read and write and I'm gonna re-organize everything and start afresh in 2021 — June, I think. That's the way I'm looking at it right now."
Steve Miller with Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 30, at the Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre at Freedom Hill, 14900 Metropolitan Pkwy., Sterling Heights. Tickets are $29.50 and up. Call 313-471-7000 or visit 313Presents.com.
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