Right about the time Carl Anderson was stepping out as a solo act at The Local, Ashley McMillen stepped onto the same stage virtually out of nowhere. Not exactly nowhere, she’d been living with her sister at a farmhouse outside of Scottsville and moonlighting as the lead singer in a country cover band playing “the animal circuit,” weekend singalong gigs at Moose and Elk lodges.
“I had never played any song I had ever written in public for anyone,” McMillen said.
A friend, local guitar player Michael Clem, helped her chart the music to “Mama,” one of about 40 original songs she’d composed, on a napkin at The Local’s bar and she played it with a band for the first time at an open mic night. Since that moment, McMillen’s known what she wants to do with her life.
“I’m gonna make this work. There’s not a doubt in my mind that I will do this. And I don’t know how. I don’t know if it will come out as me being a songwriter or just an artist who sings, but I know this is what I’m gonna do,” she said.
McMillen was born and raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, a coal miner’s daughter. Her grandfather was a pedal steel player first in the Air Force and then in church and social bands and she learned to play violin and sang in the choir as a child. But she never believed she had a future as a musician. She found her songwriting voice during the darkest stage of her life, living in an unhealthy relationship in New Jersey as she pursued her master’s degree in counseling at Rutgers University.
“It was a really bad situation that I got myself sort of stuck in for whatever reason and the only sanity I had was to write songs and so I did that almost every night,” she said. “I would go sit in the little room that was sort of mine and wrote songs and more songs and just kept writing songs and never played them for anybody.”
McMillen has a full-time day job as a child therapist. She’s never made more than $1,000 for a show. A recent gig at The Purple Fiddle in Thomas, West Virginia on a Sunday afternoon demonstrates the financial challenge touring presents. By the end of the four-hour drive to the show, her car was running on fumes, but she didn’t have any money for gas. She played the gig and got paid $35 cash, which was enough to fill her tank so that she could drive to her parents house an hour away to get the money she needed for something to eat and the four-hour drive home.
To promote her career, McMillen has become her own webmaster. You can stream her music directly from her site or find it on her Pandora radio station, Spotify, or iTunes. She also uses BandCamp and cdbaby.com. Hitkicker 99.7, the local country station, has been playing two of her songs. Last year she raised $5,000 on Kickstarter to record a five-song EP, which is on its way to being a country album. Her song “Now I Know” is, like “Mama,” a wise woman’s lament about the way her parents tried to steer her right. She’s not sure if her career path will lead her to a bigger country music market or not.
“I’m going to go to Nashville next week and everyone in Nashville is going to tell me I need to move to Nashville,” she said. “Then I’m going to come home to Charlottesville the following week and everyone is going to tell me I don’t need to be in Nashville. I think it’s different for every person.”
At 30, McMillen knows she got a late start in a tough race, but she sees the new industry environment as an opportunity for more mature, authentic voices. Sure, she doesn’t have money for marketing or a team for booking, but she has control.
“I certainly haven’t made it by any means. But I think you have a lot more power. If I had tried to do this when I was 17, it would have been very different. I wouldn’t be singing my own songs and I wouldn’t be choosing my own band,” she said.
In the file-sharing age, I can pull up my Spotify account and listen to all the people I interviewed for the story, but I can also listen to John Coltrane, Ali Farka Toure, John Prine, or New Order. What would make me, apart from an assignment, listen to Carl Anderson? In the radio world, one hook can make a song stick. But the songs I love most need to be listened to three or four times before they get to you.
Anderson’s song “1945” is like that, a mature love song with a driving rhythm and slick turns of phrase, but his voice has something that’s hard to place. Call it authenticity or confidence. I asked Anderson where that came from and later on in the interview he told me that his father had been a hobo who hopped a train from Richmond at age 17 and never stopped moving. He went by the name Virginia Slim, and when Anderson was little and his folks were still together, the family traveled each year to the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa.
“He didn’t believe in benefitting monetarily from a gift from God is what he always said,” Anderson said. “Which is kind of crooked, because my mom worked and he didn’t work at all…That’s probably where my voice comes from. He was doing that. He never wanted it. That sort of lights a fire in me. It’s like, man, I want to make this work because he could have.”
I couldn’t help thinking, as I was talking to Anderson, that he was going to make it. In part because he’s talented, but mostly because you can feel the ferocity of his ambition through his gentle personality. Like his gift will chew him up if he doesn’t feed it. And maybe a little bit like he knows exactly what it takes to make it, because he saw someone who was really close and never crossed over.
Anderson reminded me that the Avett Brothers played 200 shows a year for a decade before they made it and that he still hasn’t even been out on the road that way yet. As much as the industry has changed, it’s stayed the same. It was never easy to make it. Sure, there was money, but that meant teams of people controlling access at every level. You had to play ball, you had to have talent, and you had to work hard touring.
“I don’t plan on stopping. This is what I’m gonna do,” Anderson said. “You don’t retire from songwriting. You can quit the road.”
At a songwriter showcase at The Southern last month, James Wilson confessed to singing “spoiled kid blues,” but his songs generally have expansive themes about Southern male identity, romantic and otherwise. “When Southern boys they all loved R.E. Lee, and when Southern girls loved R.E.M., were they all in confederacy against you? Or were you just like them?”
His voice can sound more like Springsteen or Waylon or, as his presser says, Jay Farrar, depending on the song he’s singing. The room that night was packed with a mixture of people, ranging from professorial family friends, to musician buddies and local fans, to what seemed like the entire UVA Pi Beta Phi sorority, whose members had come to watch the aforementioned Carleigh Nesbit open the show playing alongside guitar picker Landon Fishburne.
Early in his set, Wilson started in on a song and stopped because he couldn’t remember the words. It’s the type of moment that can kill a show before it starts, throw a nervous performer off or ice a crowd. Really good singers know how to turn moments like that into intimacy. “How does it start?” Wilson laughed, stopping to take a sip of his bourbon, then smiling as he put the glass down.
“Oh, yeah. Head in the clouds…” He flashed an ironic smile and then the vulnerability was gone and he was into the song and the crowd was following him. Even the Pi Phis. Especially the Pi Phis.
At the end of one of his longest, most circuitous answers, he leveled eyes with me and delivered his best assessment of the situation.
“I don’t know any musician who’s happy, necessarily, with where he is in his career. You don’t get into this business because you’re used to settling,” he said.