Lee Thomas Miller is a songwriter and record producer, credited with seven number one country hits including "The Impossible" (Joe Nichols), "The World", "I'm Still a Guy" and "Perfect Storm"- all by Brad Paisley, "You're Gonna Miss This" for Trace Adkins, "I Just Wanna Be Mad" by Terri Clark and "Southern Girl" (Tim McGraw). Three of his songs — "You're Gonna Miss This", "The Impossible" and "In Color" by Jamey Johnson was nominated for Best Country Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards. His songwriting is characterized as timeless, thoughtful, and always entertaining. We are proud to feature Miller as our 2018 February Featured Artist. We recently had the pleasure to ask the songwriter a handful of questions about his influences, writing process, and what the future holds for this talented wordsmith.
Q: Who first introduced you to music? What’s your first musical memory?
A: My parents didn’t play anything, but I had an uncle that played guitar in country bars. I remember thinking that was cool.
Q: How did music play a role in shaping your early life?
A: I had a great childhood, but I grew up on a tobacco farm. I knew when I was little that I didn’t want to farm. Music was that amazing escape. It never came easily to me, so I had to work hard to learn how to play. I was completely obsessed with it. My mother set me up with lessons whenever I asked. Piano and violin. I was basically self-taught on guitar. I sat for hours each day playing scales or trying to learn how to play what was on the radio.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to be a songwriter, or did it just evolve?
A: It kind of evolved. I went to college (Eastern Kentucky University) and received a Bachelors in Music theory/composition. I studied classical violin, piano, voice, and guitar. My degree was in composition though so I learned formal orchestration and the history of music. It was fascinating, honestly. The point was to make myself a better musician so that I could survive Nashville as a musician. Shortly after moving to Nashville I was pulled into writing situations. There were some folks who put me in a band in an attempt to get a record deal. That led to me pursuing a solo record deal. It was through those experiences that I started writing every day, with real songwriters. In 1996 a very successful publisher told me that he didn’t think I was an artist, but I he thought I had the chops to write. On September 1, 1996, I became a full-time professional songwriter. I never looked back. A few years ago Eastern Kentucky University inducted me into their Hall of Distinguished Alumni. That was surreal- especially considering I am the rustiest classical musician to ever graduate from there!
Q: Of your seven number one country hits, three are performed by Brad Paisley. What’s your relationship like with him? Do you write with an artist or voice in mind?
A: Brad is one of my best friends. He is one of the top 3 or 4 most talented people I’ve ever known which is saying a lot since the greatest musicians in the world live in Nashville. Brad is a true songwriter, so when I write with him, he is very dialed in on what he wants. If I am not writing with an artist, then I am focused on making the song as commercial and widely appealing as possible - while staying true to the idea. I think songs are all about the idea and I am a word junkie.
Q: As a producer and songwriter, you get to channel the direction of a song in a variety of ways. How do you balance your creative vision with the influence of a performing artist? What’s the give and take look like?
A: I think we are all shaped by the music that we love. You have to be aware of the sound of today as well as the vernacular. Writing or producing dated tracks is useless. We have to always be leaning forward but I think there is a reason songs and artists become classics. I don’t think you should be different just for the sake of being different. There has to be an organic element in music. As a producer you have to get to know the artist. Truly. You have to know what their influences are and help them add that to the recipe without forcing it or making it something it isn’t. Singers are real artists. I want to make them love what they are creating. They will have to sing it forever so I want them to be proud of it. As a songwriter I am creating something that someone else will go out there and sing. The trick is to make it universally applicable so the artist feels it but the label and the radio programmers and the listeners do as well. The heart hasn’t evolved. We all still feel things the same as we did 100 years ago. Just say it real and honest. They need to think it’s fresh and new while making them feel something familiar.
Q: What’s your proudest musical achievement?
A: Hmm. Number one records are hard to get so I would start there. Awards are nice. I have won several songs of the year at different events. I would probably say that getting to be friends with some of my lifetime heroes is pretty special. Randy Owen of Alabama, songwriting gods Dean Dillon and Craig Wisemen are just a few. I’ve performed in arenas and the grand old opry. I ride the busses and fly in the private jets for “work”. I am close friends with some of the greatest talents in our industry and that is never lost on me. I have a front row seat for some of the greatest musicians on earth. The Nashville studio musicians alone are a master class of their own - the tone, the creativity, the technique. They are the coolest folks on the planet. I secretly still dream of being a world-class player. I would consider my greatest musical achievement that we have raised 4 kids by playing music and writing songs. My wife hasn’t worked in 17 years. She gets to be mom and I get to live a dream every day.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: There is always somebody getting ready to record, so I live in a constant state of scrambling. I write a lot of songs. Everyday I am writing something, then demoing, and my publisher is out there pitching. That part never changes. I have gotten better about vacations, but I am always working.
Creative crazy keeps us all up. I didn’t sleep at all last night. Too many ideas. I always want to be great. Sometimes failure keeps me up - maybe a single didn’t do as well as I hoped or I didn’t get that cut that I was promised. But if everything is going well then I am laying awake thinking about new ways to tell the girl I can’t live without her. I tell a joke that if I go home and tell my wife, I wrote her a love song that day, she replies “nope, you wrote a love song for Dierks Bentley’s wife today.”
Beyond that, I spent the last five years as president of the Nashville Songwriter’s Association International. The most important thing we accomplish is to pound Washington DC to save our profession. The age of streaming has almost ended our profession, and it is not fair. I have testified before both the House of Congress as well as Federal Court. I have met with White House cabinet members over multiple administrations, as well as the Department of Justice and countless members of Congress and rogue bureaucrats. We finally have enjoyed a few wins recently, which have been hard fought and much needed. This past fall I resigned that position and formally entered the race for the US House of Representatives for Tennessee district 7. However, three months into the race I realized it is nothing like what any of us think it is or should be. I pulled out of the race and resumed the life I love. I can have more impact where I am. That is all a story for another day.