Ben Miller didn't grow up in the Midwest. Born and raised in the state of Washington, the singer and guitarist left home to attend art school in Philadelphia. But it wasn't until he adopted Joplin, Mo., as his hometown that the Ben Miller Band was born.
Founded at a local open mic night, Miller, multi-instrumentalist Doug Dicharry, and washtub bass player Scott Leeper have played together for nearly 10 years.
And aside from an invitation to open for a big-time headliner, Miller credits Joplin as a key to the band's success.
"We wouldn't have survived without the regional audience that supported us," he told DiscoverSD from his home in southwest Missouri. "It helped us grow into the band that we are now, in a lot of ways, because it's a difficult style to define. I think in a larger ecosystem we probably wouldn't have ended up sounding so idiosyncratic. Joplin really shaped us."
It's an understatement to say their style is difficult to define. Originally dubbing their music "Ozark Stomp," the band tackles everything from roots and blues to rock and bluegrass. Dicharry plays plenty of washboard and electric spoons during shows, and Leeper is known for his homemade, single-string gutbucket bass.
Being hard to categorize has worked to the band's advantage. Opening ZZ Top's 2013 summer tour, they noticed the legendary headliners hanging out and watching their set.
"We've actually become good friends," Miller said. "We don't play the same music, but it comes from the same lineage. It's like we had the same grandpa or something. We're also both three-piece bands and we all have beards. But it's funny. People tend to talk a lot about our beards. Yet, when we go out with ZZ Top, nobody says a thing. We stand in the shadows of some of the biggest beards in modern history."
The Ben Miller Band will be back on the road with ZZ Top in March and April, spending February as the openers for Atlanta rockers Blackberry Smoke. January finds them honing their chops as headliners, including a local stop at The Merrow on Jan. 24.
While Miller isn't sure if the unique style they've developed will expand as their audience does, he believes in the power and community of honest music.
"People think they want repetition," he said. "But I don't think they do. I think they want the world view that comes from the bands they like. So for me, it's less about maintaining expectations, styles and curating what we've already done, and more about sticking with the outlook and values we had when we first made these songs."
The band's latest album, "Any Way, Shape or Form," has only been out since August, but the dynamic bandleader is already thinking about the next one.
"I'm dying to get back into the studio," Miller said. "I think live shows are where it's at, but I also don't want to neglect the aspect of craft. We still want to make something that people will take home and hopefully become part of the soundtrack to their lives. That's a magical and indescribable thing."
Scott McDonald is a writer, on-air personality and consultant with 15 years of experience in the San Diego music scene. He has interviewed hundreds of artists, from the legendary to the underground, for print and television. Follow McDonald and his melodic musings on Twitter @eight24_ or Instagram @scotteight24. Send your music musts to email@example.com