Country-Roots Musician Jim Miller Of Western Centuries Has Passed Away Unexpectedly
By Devon Leger.
On Thursday, March 24, 2022, guitarist, songwriter, and singer Jim Miller of the band Western Centuries passed away unexpectedly from cardiac arrest while on tour in Boston. At only 69 years of age and in good health, Miller’s passing has devastated the Americana and acoustic roots communities of which he was a member for many years. Outside of Miller’s songwriting in Western Centuries, which was known for its biting social commentary and insightful turns of phrase, Miller was a founding member of Americana pioneers Donna the Buffalo and was noted for his collaborations with Dirk Powell, Rosie & Richie Stearns, Jim Lauderdale, Ginny Hawker, and Tim O’Brien.
Western Centuries was formed around the nexus of three very different, but complimentary songwriters, Jim with Cahalen Morrison and Ethan Lawton from Seattle. At live shows, the three would trade instruments, swap leads, and share the stage in a manner unusual for most Americana and country bands. Part of the egalitarianism came from Miller, who loved to perform, but was always humble and soft-spoken about his own contributions to the music and the community. “I feel so unbelievably fortunate to have been able to spend so much time with him,” Morrison says, “and experience life with him, and try and see the world through his lens. The man knew how to live.” Echoing Morrison’s sentiments, Lawton spoke of Miller as “a loving mentor and team mate in so many ways but most of all a dear pal.”
Jim Miller was born in Boston in 1953 and lived for a time in Colorado. As a child, he spent much of his boyhood on the Canadian prairies around Saskatchewan, singing in the Saskatoon Boys Choir and getting introduced to roots music through his parents. An early experience at a Jimi Hendrix concert and exposure to the folk music concert series at Yale University brought Miller deeper into the fold. He formed Donna the Buffalo with Tara Nevins in graduate school and was a key member of the band for fifteen years, criss-crossing the country and touring heavily. While studying in Ithaca, NY at Cornell University, Miller fell in love with the Ithaca old-time string band scene, an influential community that laid the groundwork for later old-time artists like Uncle Earl and also started Miller on a lifelong interest in Appalachian music. Miller cut five albums with Donna the Buffalo and was a key part of their early sound, though he’d say in his characteristically humble way that he was mainly a side person. Outside of Donna the Buffalo, he also cut seminal albums with Dirk Powell for Rounder Records and recorded with artists like Jim Lauderdale, Mike Seeger, Ginny Hawker, and Carol Elizabeth Jones.
Though Miller grew up around music, he also grew up engaged with nature, as his father was a noted ecologist. Miller followed his father into the field, becoming a respected lepidopterist (scientist who studies moths and butterflies), earning a PhD from Cornell University. He later landed a high profile job as an Associate Curator in Entomology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which saw him quoted often in the The New York Times. Though he toured all across the United States and over to the United Kingdom and Europe with Western Centuries, his lifelong quest for understanding moths took him to even further corners of the globe; he was especially an expert on moths in South America. In addition to all the music fans left mourning by Miller’s passing, there are also many in academia who are speaking now in remembrance of how he influenced them directly and encouraged their careers.
Following his work with the American Museum of Natural History, Miller moved to Seattle with his wife and ended up meeting Cahalen Morrison and Ethan Lawton at jam sessions around the town. The three formed Western Centuries as a way to explore an urban nexus of country that drew from their own roving influences, like Morrison’s Southwest origins, Lawton’s interest in early soul and reggae, and Miller’s groove-laden history of song building. The band recorded four albums with Free Dirt Records, initially under the name of Cahalen Morrison and Country Hammer. NPR said “their debut album Weight of the World introduces a band as skillful in their musicianship as they are innovative in their writing.” Their most recent album, Call the Captain, was released in 2020 and called “truly diverse” by Rolling Stone Magazine. The band had just finished recording a new album when Miller tragically passed away.