It’s one thing to dip into the well of American roots music for inspiration, learning songs off of old 78s or at old-time jam sessions, but it’s quite another thing to have traveled so far down the rabbit hole that every song you write sounds like it could have come from a 1930s hobo camp. That’s the case with Portland singer, songwriter, and band leader Jacob Miller. Just 24 years old, his music is sepia-toned, informed by the past as much as it is by his own hitchhiking present. It’s blues for sure, but not the country blues of Robert Johnson. It’s more like the urban blues of Memphis Minnie or Big Bill Broonzy–blues born under the cold streetlights of a nameless Midwestern city. Which makes sense, since Jacob Miller himself hails from Wisconsin, though his current band and music is all based out of Portland, Oregon, the West Coast’s most progressive music city.
In Portland, the roots music scene is red hot and Jacob Miller and the Bridge City Crooners fit right in. The group can be found busking on street corners to enraptured crowds, playing in underground speakeasies, or playing Portland staples such as the Laurelthirst Public House, Raven and Rose, and The Secret Society Ballroom. Jacob Miller & The Crooners were a big discovery at Seattle indie festival Timber! this year, have been playing the Northwest Folklife Festival for the past few years, and were invited by Greg Vandy of KEXP to interpret the music of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, not to mention all their frequent Northwest tours and adventures further afield. Their music was built for dancing and the Crooners know this well, which is why you’ll often find young swing dancers sailing across the floor at their shows. And it’s onstage where the Crooners truly shine. Onstage you can see how the chattering rhythms of Ben Bailey’s washboard and percussion mesh with James Ramey’s tenor banjo playing. Doghouse bass player Mike Team anchors the band with his thumping bass lines, and Nate Lown’s old school trombone playing brings the New Orleans vibe to the Crooners. But it’s Jacob Miller’s singular voice that truly anchors the band. His voice warbles with the staccato of a jazz shouter and wails like a country blues moan.
Jacob Miller & The Bridge City Crooners bill their music as West Coast Ragtime, Jazz, and Blues and though you can hear all of these influences readily, there’s also an undercurrent of youthful abandon, the kind of wild joy of the American road (or rails) that filled the gas tank of Woody Guthrie’s dreams and kept him rolling down the road.