Madison, Mississippi-based Ryan T. Miller scored 1st Place in the September/October 2021 American Songwriter Lyric Contest for his song “Road the Coal Made Black.” American Songwriter caught up with Ryan to get the scoop on the lyric’s inspiration and other writerly musings.
American Songwriter: What was your inspiration for writing “Road That Coal Made Black”?
Ryan T. Miller: I have always loved the mountains. Every year my family and I spend time in the mountains escaping our busy lives by unplugging, detaching, and disconnecting from work and the world. It is a place of peace for us. On a recent trip, however, I was struck by the thought that while this place is a refuge for me, it could easily be the opposite for others. I would never presume to know another person’s life story, but one can easily see there is struggle in those mountains amidst their beauty. In fact, it dawned on me that what really draws me to the mountains may not be the mountains themselves, but peace and freedom from things in my life that cause stress, frustration, or pain. I can imagine that while our lives are obviously different, we do share the hope of breaking free from those things. We all want to “walk down that mountain.” I wrote this song trying to capture that feeling.
AS: How long have you been writing lyrics?
RTM: I have been writing songs, poems, and lyrics since I was a kid. Most of them will never see the light of day, but it has been such a wonderful way for me to process so much in my life. I’ve got lyric books strewn about my house. Some day when I’m gone, I’m sure my kids will get a kick out of finding lyrics sheets hidden all over the place. Hopefully, they won’t judge me by their quality.
AS: Have you written music for “Road That Coal Made Black” yet?
RTM: I have written music to go along with these lyrics. I love to play and sing, and this is one of my favorites to play through. The music has some cool dissonant chords that get resolved throughout the story. I guess you could say that the tune has tension winding through the lyrics only to provide hopeful resolution.
AS: How long does it usually take for you to write a song?
RTM: It’s never the same for each song. Lyrics will often come to me very quickly. Likewise, tunes can often pour out. Other songs may often take their sweet time. This lyric took me a few days to put down in its finished state. That’s pretty fast, comparatively speaking, to others I’ve written. The tune, however, took a long time to match the words.
AS: Do you enjoy co-writing?
RTM: I would love to try co-writing. I haven’t had the opportunity to do that just yet. However, I do enjoy writing by myself as often it’s a chance to process some very personal feelings and emotions. I do look forward to some opportunities to collaborate with others.
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AS: What keeps you motivated?
RTM: Everything around me motivates me to keep writing. There is a song in everything and I love the challenge of trying to capture the stories. I also have three kids. My wife and I are both musicians and we want to encourage our children to use music as a way to express themselves in healthy ways. That’s a great motivation.
AS: Are there any specific songwriters, artists, and/or musicians who inspire you?
RTM: I have been on a Gordon Lightfoot kick here lately. I think he’s one of my all-time favorites. “A Song for a Winter’s Night” and “Steel Rail Blues” are my favorites of his. I have also loved listening to David Ramirez. “Heaven” and “Shoeboxes” are fantastic.
AS: How long have you been writing?
RTM: I’ve written my whole life. But to be honest, I didn’t really get serious until I lost my dad a few years ago. I wrote “The Captain’s Son” as a way to try to deal with his death. I hadn’t written a whole lot for a while before then. That song opened the floodgates for me and I’ve been writing constantly since. I guess my goal in writing would be to always get better. I know I have a lot to learn about writing good songs. I want to find better ways to tell stories through them.
AS: How do you find time to write?
RTM: I take a lyric notebook wherever I go. There is no telling when a turn of phrase or tune will pop into your head. My phone is also full of audio recordings of lyric and song ideas. My kids think I’m totally weird when I start singing into my phone in the middle of traffic. If you love something, you’ll find time, even if it’s sometimes sporadic.
AS: What is your idea of a perfect song?
RTM: That is a really difficult question. But I guess I would have to say a song that elicits emotion musically while telling a relatable, but unique, story is hard to beat. John Prine’s “Summer’s End” comes really close for me.
AS: Who are your all-time favorite singer/songwriters?
RTM: Gordon Lightfoot – I love his unique song structures. I think he wrote so many songs that were heavy in content, pleasant to the ears, with nontraditional song structure.
Gregory Alan Isakov – His voice is so unique, and his songs have a whimsical, dream-like nature to them.
James McMurtry – James writes incredible stories. He is one of the best. “Lights of Cheyenne” is my favorite of his.
Read the winning lyrics here.