The V-Roys: A Collection and Some Recollections
Yes, the suits were a factor. There were those who turned out for the semi-novelty of it all and to check out the sharp-dressed men. Even the floor plan was well thought out. The band’s two vocalizing songwriters, Scott Miller and Mic (Mike, in the early days when vowels were flourishing) Harrison, were positioned stage right and left respectively, flanking bassist/young-Andy-Garcia lookalike Paxton Sellers. It was a straight line of navy blue, with bedrock drummer Jeff Bills behind and center in case a triangle was called for. Some folks might have come for the threads and the tactics, but they stayed for the tunes.
With his songs, Miller – a graduate not only of the Tom T. Hall & John Prine & Roger Miller school of writing, but also of William & Mary – put the smart in smartass, while Harrison’s lumberyard-pop numbers suggested Rockpile vacationing in the Smokies. The artists whose songs the V-Roys covered in their thrilling live shows revealed a lot about the band’s intent and record collections: Prine, Miller, Johnny Paycheck (a gritty “11 Months and 29 Days”), Loudon Wainwright III, Neil Young, the La’s. Yep, those V-Roys, they were a country & western-, big guitar-, pure pop hook-, singer/songwriter-loving roots-rock quartet.
That long, convoluted tag is supported by the contents of Sooner or Later, a V-Roys compilation that collects the highlights from the band’s two studio releases – 1996’s Just Add Ice and 1998’s All About Town – and lures completists with five previously unreleased cuts, including three covers. “Guess I Know I’m Right,” “No Regrets,” “Cry,” and “Sooner or Later” (a Harrison-penned winner that the V-Roys performed even before he signed on) all vibrate with a unique energy that was too raw for the smooth-country set and too twangy for the pure-rock crowd but catnip for a whole bunch of folks in between. And Miller, his trademarked self-deprecation in full bloom, might shrug off “Kick Me Around” as “a John Fogarty rip-off,” but it’s a wonder of country-boy soul that would do Dallas Frazier, or maybe even Eddie Hinton, proud.
That’s just the cream of Just Add Ice’s crop. All About Town’s “Amy 88” and “Over the Mountain” are a pair of ace rockers from Harrison (lacking only record mate “Miss Operator” to make it three aces), and the jaunty, Ronnie McCoury-visited “Mary” and the emotion-heavy “Fade Away” remain two of the most personal creations in Miller’s catalog.
The previously unissued covers all connect as well. Buffalo Springfield’s “Burned,” one of the airier and hookier entries from the Neil Young songbook, is a smart choice. The take on Hall’s oft-covered “That’s How I Got to Memphis” is a worthy addition to the tribute list – a couple yards away from Solomon Burke’s version, sure, but just a step behind Buddy Miller’s and Kelly Willis’. And a run at Leiber & Stoller’s “Smokey Joe’s Café” brings the roots-funk in a way that only a group that also was known to include Steve Martin’s “King Tut” on its set list can.
The collection concludes, as did the V-Roys’ debut, with the drunky-tonk ditty “Cold Beer Hello,” which will always have a special place in my heart – specifically, the smoky little corner with the Gear Daddies on the jukebox and four IPAs on tap. The first time I saw the band was two days after Thanksgiving 1996. I drove nonstop from my parents’ house in Upstate NY where I’d spent the holiday to Raleigh, North Carolina’s now gone but not easily forgotten Brewery, a 10-hour journey fueled by repeated airings of Just Add Ice. When I pulled into the Brewery lot, I lingered for a couple of minutes to finish taking in “Cold Beer Hello” for the fourth time on my travels.
Upon entering the downright chummy confines of the Brewery, I found myself standing next to Bills, he of the song’s drummer’s-holiday guitar work. I shared my saga with him, right down to the parking-lot encore, fanhood and travel-fatigue-induced wall-crumbling temporarily trumping what tends to be a debilitating shyness. “I bet you’re ready for one right about now,” replied Bills, “one” being a cold beer. Yep. And I said howdy to a couple more over the course of the night while watching my new favorite band.
I went on to see the V-Roys at least 20 more times, in Raleigh and Chapel Hill, in their home base of Knoxville, and in exotic ports of last call such as Hickory, NC, and Johnson City, TN. As it turns out, I’ll get one more crack at them. I got my ticket for when the band reunites in Knoxville this New Year’s Eve. I might even wear a suit.