Born at the turn of the century, Emmett Miller was a Georgia-raised blackface entertainer who recorded a string of records, mostly in the 1920s, that helped to fill the creative void between ragtime and jazz. Stylistically, he was neither blues nor country, black nor white. Think yodeling blues singer. Talent-wise, he was neither good nor bad mostly just something in-between, different enough to strike a chord with those who attended his minstrel performances and purchased his records.
Nick Tosches, contributing editor for Vanity Fair and best-selling author of Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, became obsessed with Miller more than 25 years ago—a fascination to which he admits without embarrassment while researching a book about country music. The fact that Merle Haggard dedicated his album I Love Dixie Blues to Miller was enough to tweak Tosches' curiosity. Not until he discovered one of Miller's recordings in the bargain bin of a New York record store did he understand why Haggard and others felt obligated to tip their hats to the entertainer. He writes, "When I heard Miller's actual voice, forthshining from the coruscations of those slow-spinning emerald grooves, I was astounded, and my search for information on him began in earnest."
To say that Tosches was obsessed with this white man who liked to perform made-up as a black man is an understatement. He pursued Miller with the righteous zeal of a cuckolded husband on the trail of his marital adversary. But, in truth, this gracefully written book contains very little information about Emmett Miller. Rather, it is more about the author's search for some semblance of creative unity and purpose in American music. It's a noble quest, a journey of discovery that is as entertaining as it is enlightening.
James L. Dickerson is the author of Colonel Tom Parker: The Curious Life of Elvis Presley's Eccentric Manager.