Karen Miller Tells Her Tale
Karen Miller, host of The Miller Tells Her Tale podcast and Now That’s Americana on CMR Nashville, was one of the first music podcasters I heard and I always admired her passion, as well as her Scottish accent. Now we get to find out about her influences and how she started and what else she does with her life.
Where and when did you start in radio?
I wanted to work in radio ever since I was in my mid-teens, although never as a presenter. I discovered the late Roger Scott on BBC Radio One and loved his two programs – my ambition was to produce his show. What he did wonderfully was segue between songs and to play music from so many different genres and eras together in a way that really worked. When he passed away in the late ’80s I was gutted. I worked in various radio-related jobs: sending radio commercials via satellite to independent UK stations, marketing at Classic FM and as an internet developer specializing in media applications. I volunteered at a number of hospital radio stations over the years, eventually presenting an Americana show in Edinburgh. However, when I was appointed station director, my first job was to sack myself as I’m sure the patients didn’t want to listen to so many sad songs! I finally landed my dream job in 2004 when I joined the team producing BBC Radio Scotland’s country show Brand New Opry (later Brand New Country). This was a chance to get artists I rated onto national BBC Radio. I had a wonderful five years with the program, including two trips to Nashville and recorded sessions with some of my favorite artists. Sadly, this show was canceled in 2008.
Where do you work now?
My day job is working for BBC Radio Scotland, based in Glasgow, in online, taking photographs and producing videos for the website. I’ve recently had the pleasure of filming sessions with John Moreland, Sam Baker, and Andrew Combs for the station’s current country show Another Country with Ricky Ross. However, my heart lies in radio production and Americana music: I produce and present two internet radio shows, the long-running The Miller Tells Her Tale, which is a two-hour weekly podcast, and Now That’s Americana, a one-hour program on CMR Nashville.
How do you describe your show?
The reason I started The Miller Tells Her Tale was to support all the wonderful independent artists whose music doesn’t get the on-air exposure I believe it deserves. And I’d like to think 16 years later that that’s still the primary aim of the show. Roger Scott talked in his last-ever show about how, as a boy, he’d hear something he loved and he’d be so excited about it, he’d open the windows, point the speakers outwards, and blast the music to whoever was passing because he wanted to share it with others. That sums up exactly how I’ve always felt about what I do. I don’t think I’m a natural presenter, but I really want people to hear this great music. I can’t deny it’s a little self-indulgent; I only play music and artists I rate. It’s primarily singer-songwriter but, being Scottish, I do like to include some artists that are more folk than Americana, and I do throw in a few Gaelic ballads now and then.
How do you prepare for your shows and do you have theme shows?
The vast majority of my shows have no specific theme. I tend to work from my iTunes library, sorting music on date added and picking songs that make me sit up and listen. Frustratingly, I don’t have as much time as I’d like to to really get to know an album intimately anymore, but hopefully I make good choices when building the program. I do enjoy themed shows, it’s a different kind of production and a great excuse to dust off songs from the archive – I have so many brilliant albums in my collection and I wish I could feature them more often. Sadly, right now, most themed programs tend to be tributes to some of the wonderful artists we’ve lost over the past 18 months or so – George Jones, Merle Haggard, and more recently Greg Trooper and now Jimmy LaFave.
How many new releases do you play and do you play many independent artists?
The vast majority of the songs in any one show are new releases. I love to play older stuff too, but at certain times of the year when the new albums come thick and fast it’s difficult to fit many in. There are times when I’m inundated with new music that I just want to retreat into the familiar, but then I receive an album that really excites me and I’m desperate to feature on the show. My playlists are about 90% independent artists, as they are the ones who need the most support – and are producing great music!
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
I think the first album for me would be John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow. I was in my mid-teens when it was released and at that point I was mostly buying pop music singles. However, it struck a chord, and I remember standing in my local record shop holding it and debating whether to risk buying the album. A few visits later I did, and I’ve never looked back. When most of my friends were into chart hits I was already searching out roots music.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
My favourite band is Del Amitri. Justin Currie is a brilliant songwriter, singer, and live performer. I also love the voice of Capercaillie’s vocalist Karen Matheson; even when singing in Gaelic (which I don’t speak or understand), I find her songs incredibly moving. The other Scot I rate highly is Ross Wilson, otherwise known as Blue Rose Code. He’s combining folk, country, and jazz to create some incredible music. In the Americana/country genre, it would have to be Jim Lauderdale, Marty Stuart, Sam Baker, Rod Picott, Buddy Miller … and so many others, far too many to mention.
How do you define what Americana music is?
I think of Americana as “real” music. Genuine and from the heart. It irritates me that the country label is now used to describe music I would consider pop and about as far removed from genuine country as can be. I used to be able to say I loved country music, but now that means something completely different. I do feel sometimes that “Americana” is almost becoming too broad, and it’s lost its focus a little bit, but, that said, it has been great for the kind of music I love and support.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
Hard to say. Americana does seem to be going from strength to strength as a genre, but in the UK at least it’s still not making much of an impression on radio except specialist BBC shows and independent programs like mine. Audiences at gigs aren’t really growing for the majority of the artists, with the odd exceptions such as Jason Isbell, John Moreland and Chris Stapleton.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
2017 has been a brilliant year for new releases so far – so many of my favorites have released some excellent records: Jim Lauderdale, Alison Krauss, Sam Baker, Chris Stapleton, Jeff Finlin, Justin Currie, Romantica, and Andrew Combs to name but a few.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests you wish to share?
My other passion is Scottish wildlife photography, which now competes for time with the radio show. Mountain hares, otters, and puffins especially – it is a wonderful, relaxing way to spend time, sitting watching and photographing wild animals going about their daily lives. You can see my work here.