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September 14, 2012

Nashville’s thrifty singer

Hannah Miller and her husband, James, moved to Nashville and Music City USA feels like home. First in a new series

Hannah Miller is a thrifty shopper.

It’s impossible not to find something to buy when shopping with Miller at local thrift stores, an activity Miller and I had done together in Columbia and Camden. She knows where to find must-have pieces. After booking my flight to Nashville last month, one of the first things I did was set up a retail excursion with her.

I was in Nashville to interview some of the performers who have moved from South Carolina to Music City USA. People who have had success in the downtown bars and clubs before moving to bigger cities in search of greater opportunity isn’t a new trend. It’s just that in the past few years, more often than not, when musicians leave Columbia the destination has been Nashville.

Miller, a sympathetic and revealing songwriter, moved there in December 2010. She returns to the area to play at The Old Towne Tavern in Camden tonight.

Miller’s had plenty of time to scout out the best thrift stores in her East Nashville neighborhood. If I was looking for a pair of white sneakers or Dad jeans — which I wasn’t — I would’ve been content with the racks at Music City Thrift. The discolored Dr. Martens at Southern Thrift would’ve worked if they had not been a size too small.

I had to control my impulses at The Hip Zipper, a vintage clothing store. I wanted everything — shirts, vests, jackets, hats, boots, suits. I settled for a cardigan.

“You can’t go wrong with turquoise,” Miller said of the sweater that was in her favorite color.

She bought a dress, but she had her eye on a pair of boots.

“I don’t need another pair,” she said, adding that her husband, James, would frown if she brought another pair home.

For Miller, Nashville is a more social city than Columbia.

“Moving here, you’re just introduced to this whole community who do what you do,” she said. “I just have so many friends here, that, even if they’re not musicians, they’re artists, and they have these flexible schedules.

“You have so many more people in your world that you can hang out with. In Columbia, it felt a little more isolated.”

Columbia is a 9-to-5 city, while Nashville, populated by songwriters waiting to sing — or sell — their big-break songs, is a hang-out-and-write city. (That’s what I told myself while we were shopping.) James, who owns Gorilla Bunny, a web design and development company he runs from their house, has settled into the Nashville vibe.

“That’s why I can get up and play guitar and watch TV and go back to work in the afternoon if I’m not feeling it in the morning,” he said.

James, a multi-instrumentalist, said being around Nashville musicians has made him a better player because he practices more than he did when the couple lived in Columbia. The competition for attention, obviously, is more difficult in Nashville, but there is no shortage of songwriters willing to write together. It creates the city’s communal atmosphere. If you didn’t know, most of the hits that come out of country’s capital are usually not written by the person who sings them.

The songs are created by people who, well, hang out together.

“It’s pretty great,” James said while we ate lunch at Mitchell Delicatessen, an eatery that has a reputation for the best sandwiches in Nashville. “It’s like regular hang outs, song swaps and critiques. Just hanging out and getting better at it with other people.”

Miller, who completed her three EP trilogy when “Doubters and Dreamers” was released in June, prefers salons where writers critique each other’s work. She participates in one on Monday nights where writers bring a new song with lyric sheets to pass out.

“There’s an unwritten rule that no matter what anyone says about your song, it’s always your song,” Miller, an Alabama native who moved to Columbia in May 2003, said. “They’re not going to come back and be like, ‘Well, I helped you change that line so I’m a co-writer on that’. It’s just very community-oriented.”

The Millers have hosted a songwriter evening at their home, and James has been co-writing.

“The weirdest thing to me is being comfortable enough with somebody that you can get past the thinking through all the stupid lines in your head,” he said. “And get to the point where, ‘I’m just going to throw out a bunch of crap here and we’ll just keep going until it’s not crap’.”

Oddly, James still writes with a pen a paper. In Nashville, most songwriters only use their laptops, something Miller has picked up.

“I like to have GarageBand open,” she said, referring to recording software, “because I like to sing it. So that kind of helps me figure out if it’s working or not.”

About his lyrics, James said, “I don’t really put them into the computer until it’s like a finished song that might need editing, but the song is done. I like being able to write a line or two and then scribble something over here, make brackets around something that I liked.”

At a recent co-writing session, one of James’ partners used a program to chart the song.

“And he recorded it before he left,” James said. “And he emailed it to me.”

Miller hasn’t done much co-writing.

“For me, it’s like an exercise. It’s like going to the Y,” she said. “Because usually the best songs, the ones that I keep are spontaneous and come out of me writing by myself. It’s hard for me to write the way I normally write by myself with someone else.”

Whether it’s with partners or not, writing frequently is what makes success happen in Nashville.

“That’s what people are doing every day,” Miller said. “Because a lot of people have publishing deals, and it’s there job. That’s what they do.”

That and shop.

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