Found "Bandito Gold" at Open Mic with Don Miller

Found "Bandito Gold" at Open Mic with Don Miller

All Photos by Chloe Barney, Palomedia

 

Weathered with age & tufts of gray hair flipping from the edge of his curved brim felt sat Don Miller, a professional roadie before roadies were a thing.

One of my favorite pastimes is finding listening rooms, seated areas that showcase songwriters & musicians at the forefront of entertainment. In my favorite town of Bluff Dale, Texas, there already exists a century long establishment known as an exemplary songwriters solace… but a new room is being cultivated by BBQ’r & Texas artist Dana Deatherage. This story isn’t about Dana’s eclectic space, good eats, & open mic night, but about one particular participant & the years I personally spent searching for him.

 

Rewind to three years ago at the Greenwood Saloon— two young women in vintage Roper boots, floral tattoos, & thirsty spirits went looking for inspiration. It was Ed Ogle’s famous Sunday Pickin’ Circle. You never know who is going to show up & play a tune or pick about. Don Miller took the stage, telling stories & looking like he held all the answers of life in the wrinkles of his smile lines. Chloe Barney of Palomedia was one of the two women, camera in hand & immediately clicking to capture Miller’s spirit. The 115+ year old stage of the Greenwood creaked beneath Miller, his calloused fingers strumming along. More artists played & more sangria was had & us two women (yes, I was the other) continued on with our evening.

When Chloe got back to her editing room, she had taken one of the most beautiful series of photos I had ever seen. These photos of Miller, storytelling with his words, his eyes, his clothes, his stance & all the things. Chloe made professional prints of a couple photos, sold several since it was such a striking picture, & gifted one to the Greenwood. Yet, no one could contact Don. No one had even known who he was on that Sunday afternoon.

Fast forward to April 11th, 2024. It had been three years since I had seen Miller. Every Sunday that I made my way to the Greenwood, I looked for Miller. Chloe looked for Miller also, asking about him every so often around the older & artistic circles. Then here he came, vintage (probably not to him!) pearl snap shirt & curved cowboy hat— real honky tonk like. Dana greeted him with a big hello & hug, & my eyes grew the size of summer tomatoes! IT WAS HIM!! It was the Greenwood man!! I immediately stood up, shoving the ancient antique chair that I was sitting on to the floor, running right up to Miller. He probably thought I was insane as I screamed “I HAVE BEEN LOOKING FOR YOU!!!! I HAVE SOMETHING FOR YOU!!” I must have had an entertaining splash of bewilderment on my face as Miller laughed right at me, clicking on my heels & sprinting to my house that was 200 feet from the BBQ joint. Calling up Chloe during my sprint, I had to let her know I found Miller & was finally going to give him his beloved photograph.

Ripping the picture off of my literal living room wall, I ran back to Dana’s with my skirt flowing in the wind of my running. Miller took the photo from my fingers, hand signed by Chloe, & busted out a proud smirk. The entourage of artists at the open mic passed it around, gasping at the photo & how here they both were three years later.

But then Miller took the stage, & the magic was returned in real life.

We had no idea who Miller was that day, what stories he had to tell. He just LOOKED like he lived— & boy, did he! Miller began his open mic set by telling a beautiful autobiography about his song “The Box.” His grandparents raised him, teaching him to farm & work the land, but at 10 years old he knew he wanted to be a musician. Miller traded in a gun his Paw gave him to hunt & mess around the woods with for an old “box” guitar. He hid that guitar in a far off barn under hay, never to let his good Christian folks hear him pick the “devils” music… until they found him strumming along during a storm. Miller’s Paw took that guitar & smashed it into bits, throwing it into the fireplace atop crackling flames & proclaiming he was never to play a guitar again in this family. He was a farmer. They needing working farming hands, a true living, an honest living.

So Miller decided on that day if he couldn’t play the guitar, then he would write.

Though he spent time moonshining his home state of Tennessee from Water Town to Memphis, his small town adventures were just the beginning of what was to come. In his adulthood, he ended up as the Road Manager & bus driver for Red Steagall. But more than that, he established himself as a writer. He wrote “Bandito Gold," "Strawberry Roan," & “Rodeo Blues” for Steagall, as well as many other Steagall tunes. “Bandito Gold” was originally supposed to be for Marty Robbins when Steagall hijacked the song before Miller could show Robbins— but we’re better for it, & so was Miller’s pockets. He collected credits from Steagall, Robbins, Ronnie Milsap & several other cowboy country artists.

Miller had us on the edge of our seats as he told a George Jones story, even impersonating his gruff demeanor & voice. While on the road with Steagall, Miller tagged along with tons of famous acts & found himself running around with Jones. In a fury, Jones ran into Miller demanding “HIDE ME!! Do you have a place to hide me?!” Miller interrogated Jones, asking where & why did he need hiding for. Jones was convinced that “eveeeeryone” was trying to kill him. Literally everyone. So Miller gave Jones asylum in his bunk where Jones plopped down, head first, & demanded he “get the hell out.” Miller, being the character that he is, gave some sass about it being HIS bunk & some other funny quips to jab at Jones. Moments later Curly Putnam came rounding the corner looking for Jones. He asked Miller if he’d seen him, but Miller was keen on keeping Jones a secret. However, Curly kept insisting he had a song for Jones. He needed to hear it NOW, right now! Miller begrudgingly took Curly to the bunk where an angry Jones continued to refuse being social. Like hell fire, Curly pressed again to play the song. They were going to hear this tune whether Jones liked it or not.

At that moment, Curly played “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” There Miller & Jones heard for the first time one of country music’s most famous songs with the same impressed fervor & longing experienced when hearing it. I’m sure we still would have gotten “He Stopped Loving Her Today” from Jones, but I’d like to believe that Miller’s part in hiding & then finding Jones added to the history of the song.

 

Miller closed his set with a twinkle of sadness in his eyes. Though he wasn’t a guitar picker, he made a name for himself as a writer. Over his life time, he’s received awards & royalties for his storytelling. Bringing a tear to everyone in the room, Miller let out a calm but wanting sentiment: “I just wish my folks would have seen all I accomplished as a writer, being a farmer from Tennessee.”

All of these memories & sharing of stories just to say THIS is what it’s about. Don Miller is the exact kind of person I want to be around, the kind of life that’s worth knowing about. He is the kind of story teller that tells the truth, that cares so deeply in his bones the words he’s singing to you. This is what it’s about, folks— this industry we so love.

So I urge you to step out of your shells, find an open mic or songwriter showcase, & let your ears fill with the dreams of poets & pickers alike. You never know what you’ll hear or who you’ll meet.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.