An alternative version of "Swingtown" — premiering below from the upcoming Welcome to the Vault box set — provides a case study in Steve Miller's science of making records.
Vastly different than the kinetic, Teflon-slick top 20 Billboard Hot 100 single from 1977's Book of Dreams, this "Swingtown" starts with a ringing, psychedelic intro before going into a gentle chug that takes the track into its familiar melody. But throughout its three and a half minutes the song takes a few curves and left turns, almost as if Miller is tossing ideas on the proverbial wall and seeing what sticks.
"I remember (co-writer) Chris McCarty had a basic idea for the song, and it was quite different — quite a different intro," Miller tells Billboard. "You can hear there's sort of a musical prelude and then it goes into 'Swingtown.' And then as we were working on it, it was the era of the two-minute-and-30-second single and it had to be made for radio and there were always limitations. So I took what we had and edited and pared it down.
"It's interesting to compare the two. You sort of see what the limitations of radio can do to a piece of music. I've listened to it a lot and I really like the intro to (the alternative track). I'm glad we're getting that out there for people to hear."
The alternative version of "Swingtown" — an instant grat track for Welcome to the Vault pre-orders — is one of 38 previously unreleased rarities on the three-CD/DVD collection, including more studio and live material as well as five previously unheard Miller songs dating back to the late '60s. It's the first release from a sonic spelunking expedition encouraged by Miller's wife Janice, a fellow musicologist who pushed Miller to dig into his archives and consider releasing material he had left behind and hadn't thought much about during the intervening years.
"It was all things I didn't release and didn't want to release," Miller acknowledges. "And Janice was like, 'Come on, man, we gotta do this!' And I just had this realization that it really wasn't for me to do; I work on these records and become a real perfectionist and only want the stuff I put out to be perfect. So when it comes to a retrospective I think it's really good to let someone else do it and just kind of go, 'Alright, you guys pick the music…'" Miller estimates that his wife listened to more than 800 tracks from which she compiled Welcome to the Vault, which also includes a deluxe book with rare and unreleased photos. The DVD, meanwhile, features live performances from the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 through to a 2011 appearance on Austin City Limits.
"Now I really enjoy it," Miller says of the finished product. "We killed it. It was tough for me to do, but it's turned out to be a really great retrospective. It really shows the roots of all the tunes and how they were developed and how the songs started and changed, that kind of stuff. So it's interesting — more interesting than I realized it could be."
Miller and his band are on the road all summer with Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, an outgrowth of a program Miller curated during December for Jazz @ Lincoln Center in New York, where he serves on the board. The experience has been invigorating, and it may just be steering Miller towards his first new studio album since 2011's Let Your Hair Down. "Working with Marty, I think we're just scraping the surface right now," Miller predicts. "It's such a great combination of groups, maybe the best one yet. The quality of the music and the show is really inspirational. I'm back into it."
Miller has another album in the works as well — a compilation of live collaborations with Peter Frampton from tours the two did together during 2017 and 2018. "We did 89 shows together, and we went through all the live recordings that we did and we pulled out, I think, 11 tracks," Miller says. "So, we're putting the record together now with Peter and I, and he's playing so beautifully. I think he's playing better than he's ever played; People say that a lot, but really and truly, after doing those 89 shows with him, I've gotten to know his playing so well. He's really a great guitar player." Miller also admires Frampton's spirit in the wake of being diagnosed with Inclusion Body Myositis, which will take him off the road after his summer farewell tour.
"He's working so hard," Miller notes. "We all have this time limitation, but his has been shortened. It's a real serious thing but he's handling it with grace and strength and doing a lot of great work. I think he's recorded four albums so far. And I think he's playing better than he's ever played, really and truly."