Guitarist, songwriter, and singer Jim Miller of the band Western Centuries passed away unexpectedly from cardiac arrest while on tour in Boston last week. Miller was 69 years old and his passing has been felt hard on the Americana and acoustic roots musical communities. Outside of his songwriting in Western Centuries, known for its biting social commentary and insightful phrasing, Jim Miller was a founding member of Americana pioneers Donna the Buffalo and also collaborated with musicians like Dirk Powell, Rosie and Richie Stearns, Jim Lauderdale, Ginny Hawker, and Tim O’Brien.
Western Centuries was formed around 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 this stemmed from Miller, who loved to perform, but was always humble and soft-spoken about his own contributions to the music and the community.
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 later formed Donna the Buffalo with Tara Nevins in graduate school and was a key member of the band for fifteen years, touring heavily throughout the country. Miller cut five albums with Donna the Buffalo and was a key part of their early sound.
He was also a respected lepidopterist (scientist who studies moths and butterflies), earning a PhD from Cornell University. 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.
Miller ended up meeting Cahalen Morrison and Ethan Lawton at jam sessions around the town after moving to Seattle. 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 with their most recent album, Call the Captain, 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.