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Dean Miller makes his own path

By Joel Bernstein, September 1997

It's not easy being the son of a genius. It's even tougher when you enter the same field in which your father so excelled.

But Roger Dean Miller Jr. is determined to make a name for himself. Going by his middle name and sounding like anyone but his father, the younger Miller also has the advantage that many nouveau country fans have barely heard of Roger Miller.

But as Dean Miller promotes his eponymous debut album, the people who have heard of Miller the elder - and this includes most of the journalists and broadcasters Dean must deal with regularly - can't help but bring him up. Much as the son wishes people would just talk about his own music, he also feels a need to be respectful of his father.

Roger Miller had seven children by three different wives, but Dean was the only one to spend most of his childhood with his dad. It's probably no coincidence that he's also the only one to follow in dad's footsteps. "He was a great father to have. Very wise, very deep. I traveled with him a lot."

Dean also got to absorb a lot of other musical influences. Spending most of their time in Santa Fe, N.M., the Millers still had a household full of music much of the time.

"I grew up around Willie, Waylon, Merle, Kristofferson," he says. "There was always someone in the living room playing the guitar. In some sense, you're not even aware these are famous people. They're just around all the time." Miller says he was "inspired by all of them."

It also helped that his father, while very supportive, would not pull any strings to help his son's career, insisting that he be good enough to make it on his own.

"He always gave me great advice," Miller says. "In my life I've never tried to sound like anyone else. My dad encouraged me to 'sound like me.'"

For many years, Miller tried working as an actor, playing music on the side. Eventually, he realized he enjoyed music much more. Moving to Nashville about seven years ago, he had to go through the same struggles of most young singer/songwriters.

One of his earliest Nashville friends was Trisha Yearwood, whom he met just as her career was taking off. He describes her as "the most professional person I know. She has taught me the positive side of how to act in this business." Yearwood has taken Dean on the road with her and also provides harmony vocals to a track on his album, released in late August.

Miller has collaborated with a number of songwriters over the years. He co-wrote a song with the great Kostas for the latter's album. One of the tracks on "Dean Miller" first appeared on an album by its co-writer Brett James.

Four tracks were co-written with Stacy Dean Campbell, whose two unjustly neglected albums had a similar sound to Dean's (although Miller has a huskier voice more attuned to the commercial times).

But he still has to deal with the reality of having a famous father. "I find the expectations to be high. I'm expected to be five times further along than the average new singer."

When it comes to songwriting, "I don't approach a song attempting to sound or not to sound like him. I have tried to remove myself. 'I gotta do what I gotta do.' You can't spend your life trying to live up to him."

While Dean's music is generally of a different style than his dad's, he has some lines that bear the stamp of Roger Miller wit. "I feel bad, 'cause I don't feel worse" is one example of Dean creating some of the concise, multi-layered cleverness Roger was famous for. "Dad's philosophy was 'Say as much as you can in as few words as possible.'"

His first single "Nowhere, U.S.A." got solid out-of-the-box response from a number of radio stations. A few, including one in Chicago, played the single, even before it was officially released. "That's a vote of confidence in us," says Dean. "No one is going to give me a good review or add me to their station just because of my dad."

Miller specifically picked producer Gregg Brown, who has worked with the likes of Tanya Tucker and Travis Tritt, because he wanted that same kind of tough sound on his own album.

And while he says he may write a book about his father someday and would like to see him get a tribute album, Dean won't be recording any of his father's songs.

"Right now, I'm trying to make a separation. I'm trying to make it on my own." Given the reality of the times, he'll have to. Given the sound of his album, he deserves to.