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Chris Milam has more stories than songs. Of course, he’s not running short on those, either. And for every city, every stage , every hotel desk clerk he flirts with to get a few extra free muffins for the long drive back to Memphis, every pang of homesick or moment of road weary, there’ll be another song. And at least a dozen more stories.
But the one thing that remains the same through all of them, the one central character and unwavering motif, is the music. And like the stories of so much good music, this one starts in Memphis.
A lefty, Chris taught himself to play guitar by watching his brother, memorizing the shapes of his hands in different chords and flipping them upside down. Not long after, in high school, he started crafting songs. But it was in college that Chris did what maybe we’re all supposed to do in those four years: reach some level of self-actualization. Left entirely to his own devices, the only thing he wanted to do was write and play music. “I found myself telling people I was going to law school,” he says. “I’d told people that since the sixth grade, for some reaosn. I took the LSAT. I was looking at schools. And at some point everyone around me was like, ‘Who are you kidding? You’re not gonna do that.’ They were right.”
So, in December 2004, Chris became a full-time musician. He was gigging five or six nights a week in Nashville – at open mics, bars, on campus, at coffee houses – and writing the songs for what would become his debut album, Leaving Tennessee. He released it in the spring of 2005 to a burgeoning fan base and critical acclaim, and like a good southern gentleman, stayed true to his word – he left Tennessee. He spent two years on the road, booking his own tours coast-to-coast. He charmed audiences with his banter and his music: melodies both familiar and foreign, all at once. It’s thoughtful, carefully constructed pop – the kind of songs that make one edge of your mouth curl up when you realize you and the singer are both in on the secret.
Soon enough the Nashville music industry seemed to figure out what they were missing – prompted by multiple interested publishing companies, Chris released Tin Angel in 2008, a pop songwriting showcase EP. It wasn’t long before he found himself weighing offers and contemplating a future as a Nashville songwriter. It was a certain future, but he wasn’t certain it was for him.
“During my last six months in Nashville, I was really frustrated,” Milam recalls. “When you haven’t eaten lunch in three years, it’s tempting to take that deal. I’d only ever considered a career as an artist, but now, songwriting was a very real, tangible option. And I love writing songs. I was struggling to get by. I had to think about it – do I take what might be the safer, more certain path, or do I keep taking a chance on myself as an artist? And for me, personally – I just knew I wouldn’t be satisfied unless I continued to perform, to tour, to grow as an artist, writing and singing my own music. It was a risk, but I had a feeling it would be worth it.”
In February of 2009 he went to Arkansas, where he did nothing but write songs, secluded, every day for eight weeks. In April, he returned to Nashville with a mountain of new material and plans: plans to make an album, to move to New York, to go all in. His demos caught the ear of producer Steve Martin. Together they crafted the full-length Up, a musical thesis of sorts: mature, lyrical, expertly written.
Then came New York. And the East Village. And a lifestyle that invigorated his songwriting – unlike many of his peers who lost their art behind desks and retail counters, Chris spent all day watching the clock, impatient to get back to his guitar. He spent his nights at legendary spots like The Bitter End, where his songwriting heroes had played their first gigs decades earlier. But despite all the growing he did there, in Manhattan, Chris was stuck. What he wanted to do was hit the road – play for a different crowd every night. To do that, he needed a home base. So he picked the best one he knew: his hometown.
Since then, he’s been working on more stories. There’s the one about the biker bar in Grand Rapids, where he won over a group of Harley-riding-bikers who sat, quiet and rapt, through his entire set and dropped money at the merch table afterward. Or there’s the time he got checked at border patrol trying a shortcut through Canada with Arkansas plates, a Tennessee license, a car title in his dad's name, traveling from Michigan to New York with what looked like a body under a blanket in his backseat (in truth, his guitar). Luckily, the border patrol girl just laughed with him.
And his most recent release is a story in and of itself: “Never in Love” and “Always in Love” were released in October as companion singles, inspired by a chance Valentine’s Day exchange with a friend and a walk down Second Avenue in Manhattan.
In 2012, he’ll keep writing. He’ll record. He’ll stay on the road. Playing dozens of nights in a row to different venues, connecting with different people, doing exactly what he wants to be doing. He’ll report to no one but himself, his car, and plenty of highways between Memphis and the rest of the world.
If you tried to run the numbers, they’d go something like this: stages shared with Caitlin Rose, Cory Branan, Amanda Shires, and countless more. Enough Paul Simon comparisons to fill a Pitchfork issue. At least a dozen free muffins in hotel lobbies. 6,000 miles clocked in a single month. One gig at a converted funeral home. One bra thrown at his head from a zealous fan. But Chris will be the first to tell you he’s not really much for math; instead, he specializes in stories. Living them, and telling them. Fruit roll-ups for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Singing, writing songs, making music that allows you to maybe, for just a minute, put something into the world that is better than yourself.