Before Dwight Yokum, before Leon Redbone, before Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Bob Wills and even Jimmie Rodgers, there was Emmett Miller. (We mention Miller’s stay in Asheville in this week’s cover story, but as with so many in-depth articles, a section on Miller had to be cut in favor of telling the whole tale.) The Georgia-born singer may not have invented the plaintive, break-voice ululations known as “blue yodeling,” but he was the first to popularize them. The style Miller displayed on the sides recorded during his Asheville visit in 1925 schooled several generations of popular musicians. Getting hold of the records for the sake of this story should have been easy.
In his book, Where Dead Voices Gather, Nick Tosches devoted more than 300 obsessed pages to Miller, a tide of words that managed to raise as many questions about the controversial man from Macon, Ga., as it answered. Midway through, Tosches made note of an Emmett Miller compilation put out by Sony in 1996, the liner notes to which describe Miller’s Asheville version of “Lovesick Blues” as “lost.” But through his research Tosches discovered that the records survived in at least two private collections in the U.S.: that of Gene Earle, of Nipomo, Ca., and Al Haug, a 78 record collector who lives in Minneapolis.
Record-collectors have a well-earned reputation for wariness, and it shouldn’t have been surprising that calls and emails to several of them for the sake of this story went unanswered. That wasn’t the case with Gene Earle, but then Earle had no reason to be cagey: Five years ago, he donated his entire collection of 60,000 or more records to the University of North Carolina’s Folklife Collection.
“I don’t have those records anymore,” Earle told me over the phone. “Hey – what’s the weather like there in Asheville?”
“Fine,” I said. “Maybe a little on the cold side.”
“Where I live, it never freezes and it never gets above 90. It’s a nice place to live.”
“Sounds wonderful,” I told him.
After a pleasant but fruitless conversation, I made a hasty call to the UNC Folklife Collection, where archivist Steve Weiss informed me that while Earle’s Miller sides might very well be somewhere in the collection’s stacks, Earle’s acquisition hadn’t been “processed” yet, meaning that finding a certain record within it would require piles of white gloves, the health of several interns and a string of grants — any of the lubricants on which the wheels of institution turn.
In other words: Forget about it.
A subsequent e-mail exchange with Al Haug, the Minneapolis collector, revealed that while he indeed owned Okeh 40465, “Lovesick Blues,” he lacked the equipment needed to convert it to a digital file.
“The original could benefit from being played with a wider than normal “trunchated” [sic] stylus,” Haug wrote. “Unfortunately they aren’t widely available, and way too expensive just to tape one record.”
Tacked to the end of Haug’s message, however, was this cheering note: “Jack Norton has collected audio from all the remaining Miller sides. … You should be able to find him with a google [sic] search.”
“I heard my first Emmett Miller at maybe 7 or 8 years old and he blew my mind,” Norton explained when I reached him. “I mean, that was it — I just started obsessing.”
At his home in Tennessee, Norton said he had several file boxes full of Miller notes, recordings and related items that had yet to be unpacked after a recent move from Arizona. He volunteered to dig through them for my sake.
It was Emmett Miller’s lot to live and die within the strange and regrettable tradition known as minstrelsy, applying burnt cork to his face, later greasepaint, rolling his eyes, shuffling and speaking in stammered “’dat’s” and “dere’s” in order to coax laughter from his audience. His first days on the stage were spent with successful minstrel troupes, but even as the nation’s cultural landscape fell away beneath him, Miller loped and shambled along in blackface, playing wherever local tastes would have him until his death, from cancer, in 1962.
Regardless of what one happens to feel about the artistic milieu Miller operated within, his talent as a singer and his influence on American music are beyond question. He cut two versions during his career of “Lovesick Blues,” a song written by Tin Pan Alley lyricist Irving Mills that in 1949 became a million-seller for Hank Williams. Miller also made records of “Right or Wrong,” which was subsequently covered by everyone from Bob Wills to Merle Haggard to Reba McIntyre; “I Ain’t Got Nobody”; “St. Louis Blues”; and “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” all with the backing of his band, The Georgia Crackers, which came to include such future swing giants as Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and Gene Krupa.
A day after my conversation with Norton, mp3s of all four of Miller’s 1925 Asheville sides arrived in my computer’s inbox, among them: “Big Bad Bill (is Sweet William Now),” “I Never Had the Blues (Until I Left Old Dixieland)” and “You’re Just the Girl for Me.”
“Use them however you like,” Norton told me. “I’m just sort of speechless that someone actually cares about Emmett Miller.”
On the Asheville version of “Lovesick Blues,” with pianist Walter Rothrock tinkling beneath, Miller’s voice appears at first as if underwater, treading through wavering frequencies and crackles, toes dragging through the sediment of eight decades. But by minute 2 1/2, the singer is in full falsetto flight, yodeling with command against whatever chord Rothrock cares to throw his way.
Here he is, the man Asheville called its “favorite blues singer” during the summer of ‘25, revealing his gifts for all time.
— Kent Priestley, contributing editor