Woodbury singer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Miller may not be a household name among Vermont music fans, but he has a reputation that gives him high marks as a performer. Among his peers, Miller is held in high regard for his versatility, his sense of rhythm, his soulfulness and his caring toward others.
“He deserves to get recognition in this profile,” explained Coco Kallis, of Woodbury, his former wife and partner in Coco and the Lonesome Road Band. “He hasn’t gotten the attention he should get.”
“I love Paul, he’s amazing,” music producer and performer Colin McCaffrey, of East Montpelier, said. “His voice and level of soul he has in spades.”
“Working with Paul is a delight beyond measure,” added Willa Mamet, his current musical partner who lives in Oakland, California. “Paul makes exquisite human music.”
Miller has been an integral member of several of Vermont’s top country and bluegrass bands as a guitarist, bass player and vocalist. He was a founding member of Coco and the Lonesome Road Band, one of the state’s leading country bands in the 1970s and ’80s.
Miller performed in Bluebird, a country-folk trio with Kallis and Larry Miller. He was a member of the Andy Shapiro wedding band and played guitar and sang in bluegrass bands Breakaway and the Bluegrass Gospel Project. Most recently, he’s been half the duo with the singer Mamet.
For Miller, who is nearly 70, stardom or being in the spotlight has never been a motivation in his nearly 50-year musical career.
“I dream of playing bass or rhythm guitar in a band with three singers doing harmony,” he explained. Early on in his career he said he “made a choice to have a quality of life, a job I cared about and music to play.”
Miller has managed to fulfill that goal. He continues to work full time coordinating the Supported Employment Program for Washington County Mental Health Services in central Vermont and hopes to get back to playing music with others when the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
Miller came to Vermont from the Bronx in 1969 to attend Goddard College. That lasted four months. “I wanted to get out of New York and didn’t really know what to study,” he said.
Miller had a musical background and said he “learned to read music before I learned to read words.” His mother sang old folk songs and “instilled a love of music in me.” He took classical piano lessons and guitar lessons as a child. His influences among folk musicians included Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Pat Sky.
In high school, he played upright bass in a classical orchestra. Then he discovered rock, and the first song he learned to play on guitar was “The Bristol Stomp.”
Miller’s first Vermont gigs were as the guitarist in a duo with Kallis, newly arrived from Boston. She found a paying gig in a St. Johnsbury bar and needed a guitarist. She met Miller at a party and asked him to back her. “He said ‘I’m your guy,’” she remembered. The duo expanded into Coco and friends and then Coco and the Lonesome Road Band in 1972.
Kallis lauded Miller’s talents with the band. “He was always tuned into music. He’s all music inside his core.”
At some point, Miller played nearly every instrument in the band from guitar to drums and electric bass guitar, “whatever needed filling, he could fill,” Kallis said.
Miller has fond memories of those years in the Lonesome Road Band. “I feel gratitude for that time in the early 1970s.
“Folks were very welcoming to us as musicians. We’d play Hank Williams songs with our long hair. They dug our playing even though we were hippies,” he said.
After the Lonesome Road Band ended, Miller joined pianist Shapiro in a wedding band. Shapiro was also from the Bronx and a family friend.
“Andy was the ultimate showman,” Miller said. Miller played in that band until cancer ended Shapiro’s life.
Miller’s first foray into bluegrass came with the opportunity to join the Burlington-based band Breakaway in 1999, where he became the lead vocalist.
“I’m not a country boy and didn’t grow up with bluegrass,” Miller said.
He gained his bluegrass chops from guitarist Andy Greene who became his mentor before leaving Breakaway. “He gave me what I needed to know.” The Breakaway experience was good for Miller as the band played several festivals and he “got to meet some giant players.”
A highlight of Miller’s career was the 16 years he spent with the Bluegrass Gospel Project. Theere, he was the guitarist and male lead singer. The band recorded seven albums, all live performances, during that period from 2001 to 2017.
“The band’s best playing was in a non-studio environment,” Miller said.
The band members were spread out, living in Vermont, New York State and Massachusetts. Miller said it was hard to get together to record. “We tried to rehearse once a month, or during a few days together.”
In 2013 Miller and Mamet, who had known each other as neighbors in Woodbury and family friends, recorded an album exceptional for its simplicity and musicality. The album, “East Hill Road,” featured Mamet’s smoky, emotive, tuneful voice and Miller’s acoustic finger-style guitar. With just voice and guitar, this duo released a very satisfying eight-track album that won best album of the year in The Times Argus/Rutland Herald Tammie Awards.
The duo gets together when they can and tours the East Coast and West Coast on occasion. They released their second album in 2015, “Let Somebody Love You,” and again won best album of the year. On this album Miller sang harmony and lead and played guitar.
Mamet said Miller is a one-of-a-kind musician and person. “His musical life is so fascinating. It has spanned 50 years, and he’s been in a variety of projects and instruments. He has been evolving in his skills,” she said.
Mamet was a rookie performer and recording singer when she started with Miller. She said working with him was a great help in bringing out the best she had to offer as a singer and musical partner.
“He manages to be very kind and shoots from the hip. He is very honest about how to make the music,” she said.
According to Mamet, Miller “is a musician’s musician. He’s really invested in the music thriving. It’s not about his ego, it’s really about the music.”
The duo is successful, according to Mamet, because “We’re lucky, it’s chemistry and we are really good friends and communicate well. We just kind of click and the duo works because Paul is so good at what he does.”
Mamet summed up what others have said about Paul Miller. “He is a monster musician who isn’t interested in fame,” adding, “He’s a gem beyond price.”