John Cloyd Miller, a professor at Warren Wilson College and member of renowned local band Zoe & Cloyd, has won first prize in the prestigious Hazel Dickens Songwriting Contest.
His winning song “Chestnut Mountain” is a nostalgic ode to Miller’s historic family homeplace in Wilkes County, and it is grounded in traditional Southern Appalachian roots. The lyrics weave a story about family, tradition, and the juxtaposition of the old being encroached on by the new, while also touching on his family’s involvement in the origins of bluegrass music.
Miller’s late grandfather, bluegrass fiddler Jim Shumate, was born on the family property in 1921. Shumate had a heavy influence on early bluegrass music— he played with Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and other bluegrass legends, and he even introduced Earl Scruggs to Monroe when Monroe was seeking a banjo player for his now legendary band, The Blue Grass Boys.
Miller said his grandfather was a huge influence on his musical career, and he wanted the song to honor his family’s legacy and the significance of their homeplace.
“I’d always wanted to write a song about [the family homeplace] because I felt that it was something that was very meaningful to all of us. It’s such a poignant story, important to everybody in the family,” Miller said. “When it was finished, I thought, ‘this is nice.’ It’s good, it’s simple, it has a good emotive quality. I felt proud of it.”
Miller is a professor at Warren Wilson College, where he teaches songwriting and other courses in the traditional music program. His songwriting classes examine lyrics, melody, harmony and rhythm, as well as story structure and the way those components work together to make a song.
“It’s a very human need to create, to want to express your thoughts. The students have feelings, concerns, they have things on their mind. It’s a very fertile ground for creativity, and when you couple that with an interest in music, songwriting is a natural fit,” Miller said. “The courses give students a supportive space where they can play and workshop in front of their peers. I try to cultivate a nurturing environment.”
He said he is proud to be part of the music department at Warren Wilson College.
“The music department has been building and growing a lot,” Miller said. “We’re all excited about it and thankful to be part of such a wonderful community.”
Miller’s wife, fiddler and vocalist Natalya Zoe Weinstein of Zoe & Cloyd, also teaches in the music department at Warren Wilson. Chair of the department of music Kevin Kehrberg, plays bass for Zoe & Cloyd.
The Hazel Dickens Songwriting Contest included a $500 prize, which Miller says he plans to spend on a new guitar. “I already had one on order, so this certainly helps!” he said.
The other award recipients of the contest include well-known writers in bluegrass and Americana circles. Asheville musician Anya Hinkle received an honorable mention for her song “Hills of Swannanoa.”
Judges for this year’s contest were Cathy Fink, Phil Rosenthal and Celia Woodsmith. The contest honors Bluegrass Hall of Famer Hazel Dickens, and it is presented by the DC Bluegrass Union.
To listen to “Chestnut Mountain” and see the music video with footage from the family homeplace, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJsVIPXmObk.
To learn more about Zoe & Cloyd visit https://www.zoeandcloyd.com.