On Monday, Phil Potts and I were asked by Julie Crothers at the Journal Gazette to share our memories and history as friends and bandmates of Damian Miller, who died from a gunshot wound early Sunday morning. I was in Austin, TX for a work project at the time and had to email my comments in.
Julie wrote a thoughtful and thorough article, and Damian’s friends are thankful for it. I’m trying to find my way through all of this, and thought I would also share the full text that I had sent her—and include a link to download a live recording from one of our best shows.
I first met Damian in 2003, 2004 when the Brown Bottle Band was getting a lot of momentum. I was in the band Go Dog Go at the time, and we played quite a few of the same venues.
The Brown Bottle Band guys—Damian, Phil Potts, Dan Smyth, Rick Weilbaker—were such nice guys…no attitudes at all, which was a bit rare in the music scene in those days.
Around that time, I went to Austin TX for SXSW and stuck around and saw a “hoot night” where lots of the local musicians came together to perform the songs of a particular artist. I was smitten with the idea, and came back and pitched it to Richard Reprogle at Columbia Street West. Could we pull one of these off in Fort Wayne? And of course, if we did, we’d be paying homage to Bob Dylan, right?
Well, CSW was in to the idea, and we invited Brown Bottle Band (along with Wailhounds, David Todoran, John Commorato and Go Dog Go) to be part of the evening. It turned out to be an epic evening—unprecedented in its own way, and capturing the momentum of the city’s growing music community—and the “hoot night” idea turned into a series at CSW. That series eventually became Down the Line, the fundraising show we helped start at the Embassy.
That Dylan show was when I first really, really connected with Brown Bottle Band. Their set was beyond outstanding, and Damian, Dan, Phil and Rick reverently captured the spirit of that music—and joy of playing it. Their passion for performing was contagious. And they were the warmest, most amiable guys, with just the right amount of swagger.
Around that time, I was beginning to wind down my time in Go Dog Go. While GDG had original songs, we (like the Brown Bottle Band) were predominantly a cover band. I was craving something that was more specifically about creating original music. A band that was not going to be background music at a club. A band that was part of a greater tradition of music-making. A hollerin’ band that was going to be loose and sloppy in the best possible way.
I had the idea of recreating a band from four score years ago, based on an old photo from my family’s archives—to bring that band back in 2005. I wanted it to sound like something between Billy Joe Shaver and the country songs on Rolling Stones’ records, mixed with The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan and The Band. An ancestor way back in my family tree claimed to have a hand in writing “Wabash Cannonball,” so I ran with that idea and dubbed this new entity The Legendary Trainhoppers.
I recruited Chris Dodds from Go Dog Go, along with the Brown Bottle Band, drummer Jon Ross, and singer Matthew Sturm—a seven-person band. We each contributed new original songs just for the project, and purposefully played non-traditional venues—DID block parties, all ages gigs, everything off the beaten path. It was about the music, not the scene. We let the music create the scene.
On paper, it seemed like it could have been disastrous—combining members of three of the most popular cover bands of the day (BBB, GDG, Matt Sturm Band), and instead of playing familiar songs, we’d hang on by a thread as we played vaguely country-ish original songs, and the occasional obscure cover. But it was no disaster at all. Instead, it was magical, and for me anyway, better than any of our other bands on their own.
We made an album, and by my estimation that record is too clean, too polished. But our live show was spot on.
I wanted our band to be the Faces for our time…capturing the sweat & swagger, the friendship & fury, the laughs & love, the brotherhood and bawdiness of Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood and Ronnie Lane’s tremendous band, and on our best nights, we did it.
He loved that raucous, loose, rollicking approach to music, and he brought it to life. He was freewheeling, but with a steady core…Damian had a gentle soul, a guarded thoughtfulness. He was a wonderful musician—not scholarly or fussy but dancing around the pocket with snap and swing. Ask a favor, and it turned out he was a skilled electrician and handyman. And he was hilarious—funny as hell—and yes, immature in a lot of ways. He felt like a little brother to me.
I am so thankful for my bandmates, both in Go Dog Go and the Trainhoppers. They made my dreams come true. Having followed a pretty traditional path to being “big in Fort Wayne” with Go Dog Go, we were free with the Trainhoppers to do things in the least traditional way possible, and since we had nothing, we had nothing to lose.
Would I ever imagine some of my all-time favorite bands and musicians—Tim Rogers, Ike Reilly, The Avett Brothers—would play in Fort Wayne? And if they did, that we would open for them? Would I dream we would play the Embassy stage? Would I dream of two sold out album release shows in the Indiana Hotel? Could we ever imagine making a record in the hills north of San Francisco?
Indeed, I could never even dream it. And it all happened.
We made some incredible memories together, not just for ourselves, but for our friends, for our families, and for the people we were so honored (and surprised) to be playing for.
I’m in Austin TX for work right now, and I got up early today to go for a long run. 20 miles. I haven’t listened to the Trainhoppers in several years, but this morning, I loaded up my iPhone with our album, and a couple of live shows we’d recorded. First, at Three Rivers Festival, and then a tiny “acoustic” show at Deer Park Lounge, both from 2006.
The Deer Park show was our finest night, and probably the best musical night of my life. It’s a ragged, whiskey-soaked set that captured everything I ever loved about rock & roll…the tradition of what came before us, the unbelievably one-of-a-kind bond you feel with the people in the room, the very meaning of the word band—a group of people bound together, fighting for that common cause, ever following the sound. I listened to that recording and I could feel Damian through my headphones, embodying the soul of that music so perfectly.
We named our album “Ramble On” after a song that Damian wrote and sang, though it wasn’t on the album. It’s a perfect, perfect song, and when he sang it at Deer Park, it just brought that little bar to its knees.
It did the same to me, again, this week.
So picture this: I’m in Austin, home to so many rock & roll stories. The sun is blazing, and I’m sweating through the tenth mile of my run. I feel completely alright with that, though, as all that sweat helps obscure the tears that are running down my face as I listen to that song.
The Trainhoppers were a seven-person band, and there aren’t too many of those. Turns out, there’s a reason for that—it’s tough to keep that many people moving in the same direction. Our last real show was at the first Down the Line at the Embassy Theatre in February 2007, where we anchored the encore by performing Bob’s “I Shall Be Released.”
When the Trainhoppers stopped playing, I turned my attention away from making music and toward making a real go with my design & marketing boutique, One Lucky Guitar. I fell out of touch with my former bandmates, including Damian, and hadn’t seen him in awhile when he first found trouble. I was gravely concerned and saddened by it all.
Every victim has a story, and it’s pretty easy to look at just the last six years of Damian’s life and make some pretty harsh judgements. And it’s true, he made some terrible, terrible mistakes. But those six years aren’t the sum of the man that so many of us knew—a guy that could light up a room, a guy that would roll up his sleeves for hard work, a guy that looked like “Dead Flowers” sounded, a guy that played like dusty old vinyl records smell, a guy that could feel like your little brother.
About the Audio
The Trainhoppers played at Deer Park Pub in early 2006—January? March?—as part of Jeff Anderson and Matt Jericho’s Deer Park Sessions project. Dodds / Kelley opened the evening; the Matthew Sturm Band closed it down. These shows were recorded by our good friend Jon Gillespie from Monastic Chambers. Or at least, Jon attempted to record them—it was a tiny club, and we were a large band, playing the club’s out of tune piano. Sadly, Jon’s computer crashed in the middle of “Banks of the Cumberland,” and didn’t boot back up until midway through “Sing Me a Song”—you’ll notice the fade out and fade in—thereby ruining otherwise definitive recordings of each song.
Please download, even if it’s just to hear “Ramble On.”
3. Roll to Jesus
4. Ramble On
5. I’m Not Puttin’ You On
6. Say La Vie
7. The Banks of the Cumberland (clipped)
8. Sing Me a Song (clipped)
9. Don’t Let the Door Hitcha on the Backside
10. I’ve Been Everywhere
The Legendary Trainhoppers / Deer Park Pub, version: Chris Dodds, Matt Kelley, Damian Miller, Phil Potts, Jon Ross, Dan Smyth and Matthew Sturm. Rick Weilbaker and Jon Gillespie were founding members of the band. Jeff Britton (along with Randy and Jon) helped us get the album recorded in Tiki Town. Thank you all.
Photos by Joel Faurote, Down the Line, Embassy Theatre, February 2007.