"It's Been a Great Day"
Singer-songwriter Ryan Miller’s Stairway Sessions inspire his first album, and family and friends help it become reality.
Written by Caitlyn Clegg | Photographed by Joe Worthem
What started as a project to feed Ryan Miller’s creative side and to help him heal in the aftermath of a tragic car crash has turned into a full-length album.
In 2016, Miller, two of his children and his father were in a head-on collision on Highway 9 north of Bruce. The kids were OK; Miller had some minor injuries, but the crash killed his father.
As a way of working through the pain of loss, Miller turned to music. He began writing songs inspired by the impact his father had on his life.
“I’d like to say that was intentional, but it wasn’t,” Miller said. “It was sort of a natural progression.”
The deeply personal lyrics in his songs quickly earned him recognition. Miller won the American Songwriter Magazine Lyric Contest two years in a row, first with “The Captain’s Son,” and then with “Asking For a Friend.”
“It’s Been a Great Day,” Miller’s debut single and the name of his album released Jan. 20, pays tribute to his father’s positive attitude toward life. Miller acknowledges that some form of his dad runs through each of his songs, particularly those with country or blues influences. His father loved the “old school” country singers like Merle Haggard and Hal Ketchum.
“Everyone always says my dad was the greatest guy,” Miller said. “People would ask him, ‘Max, how are you doing?’ and he would respond, ‘It’s a great day in Oxford.’”
The road to the new album began with Miller’s so-called “stairway sessions.” In off hours, he would grab his guitar and head for the stairwell of his office building in the Center for Manufacturing Excellence at the University of Mississippi. He would settle on the steps and play and sing covers of popular songs, and also work on his own music.
“As long as I do it after hours, I won’t get fired,” Miller joked. “It’s where I can go by myself and test new things out. And I’ve only had students complain one time.”
Eventually he began recording the sessions and posting them on social media, where they received an outpouring of support from friends and family that continued to grow. Pretty soon, Miller realized he had enough material from the stairway sessions for an album. Inspired by the positive feedback from both followers and professionals, he started a Kickstarter campaign that funded about two-thirds of the cost of his first album, recorded at and produced by Blue Sky Studios in Jackson.
“Surrounding myself with support and honesty has been important,” Miller said. “It’s been an overwhelming part of the whole process. I am very grateful.”
Miller describes himself as “a singer who plays the guitar.” His music pays homage to experiences throughout his life, as well as the people he’s been close with. Although he doesn’t attach a particular genre to his music, he has an affinity for lyricists who weave narrative into their songs, and his own songs tend to be contemplative.
“‘So I Can Say Goodbye’ is a song about my family,” Miller said.
“I took stock one day and realized I’m married, and I have three beautiful children. My greatest fear is going too soon and not being able to see them grow up.”
Miller’s father was in the Coast Guard, so the family traveled a lot. He credits some of his musical interests to exposure to different cultures and perspectives when he was growing up.
“People ask me, ‘What do you write?’ and I respond, ‘Yes,’” Miller said.
Miller has had musical aspirations for most of his adult life. He came to Oxford on a scholarship with the University of Mississippi Concert Singers. He was a music major for one year, but eventually changed course.
“I knew I could write to music, so I thought, ‘I’ll move to Nashville and become a country singer,’” Miller said. “I quickly learned that at 18 years old, I didn’t have anything to write about.”
Miller spent the summer after his freshman year of college in Italy with the Concert Singers. The group participated in the Gran Premio Europeo di Canto Chorale, which Miller describes as the Super Bowl of choral competitions. They went up against professional choirs from as far as Taiwan and Hungary — and won.
Miller said his time with the Concert Singers sharpened his skills, but most pivotal in his relationship with music was the acapella group Blue Ten Harmony. Miller, who is a founding member, credits his work with the group for his attention to detail and quality in his music. They started with biweekly rehearsals, and went on to sing the national anthem at an Atlanta Braves game and record a self-titled album in Nashville.
Blue Ten Harmony’s influence is woven through Miller’s work. Two of his fellow group members sang backup on the track “This Old Church,” on his debut album. Although Miller’s early attempt to become a country music star in Nashville didn’t materialize, he realizes that age and experience have added a vital component to his musical career.
“It’s ironic that I’m 40 and just now venturing into the (professional) music scene,” Miller said. “But a few years ago, I realized that now I actually have things to write about. The songs I wrote at 19 were really bad. I didn’t have anything to say. Now that I’m older and have stories to tell, there are things I want to communicate to others. Writing songs is the best way I know how to do that.”
Miller’s love for music permeates his home life as well. The Miller household is full of music; the family members all sing or play instruments, including guitar, violin and piano. Miller and his wife, Erin, regularly sing and play music together, and she serves as a sounding board for his new material. He jokes that in many ways, his wife is a much better musician than him. Through the power of music, he hopes to leave an indelible mark on his children’s lives.
“We’re the dorky family that is singing all the time,” Miller said. “We make songs for everything — bedtime, bath time or even explaining how the Smoky Mountains got their name.”
Miller encourages others to pursue creativity as a healthy, cathartic experience. Although his recent musical journey came about after his father’s death, Miller knows his father would be proud of his album.
“If my dad were here, I know he would be supporting and encouraging me the whole way,” Miller said. “But he would be honest about whether he liked it or not. He would probably tell me to play something that sounds more like Merle Haggard.”
Watch a sampling of Miller’s Stairway Sessions at invitationoxford.com/digital-details.