“When Garth Brooks said he liked our music, we absolutely freaked out”: 19-year-old Caleb Miller of King Calaway
The lead guitarist of the rising Nashville six-piece talks PRS Silver Skies, TV show appearances, and working with some of the hottest names in country music.
A year or so ago, Nashville hitmakers enlisted six guys for a burgeoning new vocal group called King Calaway. Each band member has an impressive history and musical background, but once in the studio, the chemistry was on the money.
The new, guitar-toting kids on the block could fill an old-time music hall with their lush vocal harmonizing. But while King Calaway might look like a boy band, they’re far from one-dimensional country-pop.
The lineup includes Caleb Miller, Chris Deaton, Simon Dumas, Jordan Harvey, Chad Michael Jervis and Austin Luther, who’ve had a year most Nashville hopefuls only dream about. No individual lead singer exists in this troupe, rather they rely on multi-part harmonies and keep their influences close at hand, such as the Eagles, Keith Urban and Ed Sheeran.
After releasing Rivers (BBR Music Group/Stoney Creek Records), much to the band’s surprise, country superstars Garth Brooks and Keith Urban became fans. Later, Brooks even invited the guys to open one of his Minneapolis shows, personally introducing them on stage.
“It’s really crazy how quickly something like that can change your career,” exudes lead guitarist Miller. “We couldn’t believe that Garth Brooks actually knew who we were – it’s insane how an icon’s endorsement can kickstart your career.”
King Calaway’s first single World For Two was the number one most added song on country radio during its debut week. Not too shabby for a band who didn’t grow up together nor honed their collective sound in the deep south or a Nashville honky-tonk.
But the six-piece merged their musical chops and some great gigs ensued. They played the legendary Grand Ole Opry with Ricky Skaggs for a vibrant cover of Seven Bridges Road. US TV shows followed, which are not easily secured or pulled off, but the band accomplished both playing World For Two on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and then a rousing live performance of Rivers on The Late Late Show With James Corden.
At 19, Caleb Miller is the youngest in the band, and he’s as upbeat as the melodic riff snaking the song Rivers. In the studio he experimented with various sounds for carving out the band’s mix of jangly, grooving and sometimes gritty tracks. To get River’s warm, vintage tones, he played his go-to PRS guitars (including a Silver Sky) through a ’65 Fender Deluxe Reverb in addition to other amps and pedals.
We learned more about Nashville’s new guitar guy in town who says he “felt like a 13-year-old kid tinkering in the studio”.
What were your early musical experiences?
“I started playing guitar when I was four years old. My dad played bass in a band when I was growing up. I was so obsessed with going to his shows and seeing him on stage. Eventually I ran up on stage and tried to play with them. But, I asked him to teach me guitar when I was four years old, and he started giving me lessons, and showing me everything he knew on guitar. And by the time I was six years old, I was already better than my dad. So, I had to go to a person who taught guitar. And I started taking lessons and really just getting into it early on. I was nine years old, sneaking into bars at night just to play shows. I would get kicked out, but then I’d try to get back in.
How old were you when you started doing session work?
“By the time I was 13 I was doing sessions for multiple artists, from country to blues to rock, everything you could imagine. A guy that I knew actually had a studio in my hometown, and people would come to him regionally, no huge acts, but gospel and country and rock artists would come to this guy. And he needed session musicians and I connected with him and did session work for tons of artists. At 15, I joined my first actual band, touring, and doing everything I could to get as much experience as possible. And, I guess I’m still pretty young, and here I am in Nashville with King Calaway, so, I couldn’t be prouder of where I’m at.”
When King Calaway was formed, how did you get involved and gel with the group?
“I met Robert Deaton, who is our manager now, and he was looking for musicians across the world, and introduced me to some guys that he knew, guys from overseas, some guys in the States. we all met in Nashville, got in the band room, and started playing to see if we could work as a band. You never know with guys that you’ve never met. We played Love The One You’re With [a Stephen Stills cover] and the magic was crazy. It was like nothing that I’ve ever experienced before in a band. I knew that I had to pursue King Calaway.
Love The One You’re With was the first song that we played together as a band. We all got in the band room, and we were saying ‘What song do we all know’? And, I think, from playing bar gigs and wedding gigs, we all knew that song. We started jamming and it just felt right. It was a magical moment, and, really, we took that song, and decided, ‘Okay, this is our sound, this is who we want to be as a band.'”
How did you go from being this new band to getting all these big shows?
“Nashville is such a music capital, and word spreads quickly there. And, once guys like Keith Urban and Garth Brooks start hearing about you, and they like your music, it’s really crazy how quickly something like that can change your career. Garth had heard of us, and he sent our manager a message, saying how much he liked our music, and how great it was. So, we got that message, and we absolutely freaked out. But, then, a couple of weeks later, we got another message from our manager, saying that Garth wanted us out on the road opening up for him in Minneapolis. Moments like that are insane to see how an icon’s endorsement can kickstart your career. And it’s really cool to be a part of that.”
What are the challenges from a guitarist’s perspective on live TV shows? Do you get a sound check?
“Live TV is really interesting. Sometimes, we will get a sound check, sometimes we won’t. Usually, they’ll give us one. For us, it’s very much like a live show. I have my whole live set up in the studio, and the amp will be mic’d, and it’s not so different from a live show. But the nerves are so much different than playing live, because on live television, it’s one take. You have to do it perfectly. I try to get my sounds out perfectly before the show, and then do my best during the performance.”
Rivers is a catchy tune. How did that song evolve? Your repeating riff really moves the song along.
“Rivers was pitched to us as a completely electronic track. There wasn’t one real instrument on the entire track, which is very not King Calaway. But we heard the song, and we absolutely fell in love with it. Even though there were no live instruments on it, we decided that it would be a really cool thing for us to take a completely digital track, and make it a completely live track, but not change the song at all. So, we took that song into the band room, and wrote some other parts to make it more King Calaway. But I came up with that line in the chorus, the riff in the chorus, and I feel it gave the song some energy, you know, lifting the chorus. But we’re really proud of it, and we feel like that’s a revolutionary song, especially in the country format. And, crossing over into rock and pop, it’s a really energetic song, that we’re proud of.”
Tell us about your relationship with PRS guitars.
“I’ve been with PRS for close to five or six years now, and it’s crazy. I used to play a brand that I won’t mention, but I was obsessed with their guitars, loved everything about the brand. But, once I stumbled across PRS, it was kind of life-changing. It changed how I played, and how I sounded on stage. I just love the modern aspect of Paul Reed Smith guitars. And I feel like they offered a guitar that no other brand could, at that time. I feel like there’s a modern aspect to all the guitars as well as a vintage type of sound. And the combination of those two really drew me to them above everybody else. And I feel like I implemented that into my playing, and how I write songs, and how I write solos. And I feel like I’ll never change. I think PRS are the best guitars out there, and I’m honored to be a PRS artist.”
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What makes up your studio rig?
“I got some freedom from the producers, which is a lot of fun, to try some different amp and guitar combinations. As far as amps, I played a Supro Black Magik, as well as a 3rd Power British Dream, which is a Nashville company. And did a lot of cool stuff. We actually mic’d those vintage Fender 60s and 70s amps and had some fun with that. But, as far as guitars, it was all PRS. I used the Silver Sky for the first time on a couple of the tracks, and I fell in love with it. It was a sound that I feel was missing out of my guitar collection, and that really filled that void. I got to be a guitar player. I felt like a 13-year-old kid in his bedroom, just tinkering with all the sounds. But it was so much fun getting to create a sound that hasn’t existed yet, and just be as creative as possible.”
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Describe the sound you went for on the album.
“We really wanted each instrument to sound like a solo instrument type thing. Like you could put it on all by itself and it would sound amazing. For the guitars on the album, we wanted a modern feel. We wanted the album to sound like a live record and the guitars were a big factor in that. We mic’d the amps live. I wanted to bring a high-energy rock sound and youthfulness to the guitar tracks on Rivers. On other tracks I went for a vintage, warm tone, like a ‘53 Strat plugged into a Fender amp-sound, and just that warm tone that everybody looks for. But I feel like that really came across throughout the album.
Let’s talk about the song No Matter What. You’ve got a fierce guitar tone and when you break out on your solo, it has Keith Urban feel.
“Absolutely, I’m a huge Keith Urban fan, so that’s a big compliment. But, I’ve been in rock bands most of my life. So, totally, that’s kind of what I go for on songs like that. And, No Matter What, in particular, which is a really fun song, I tried to get that real rock tone, and just shred as much as I could on that one.”
There’s a lot of different textures on Rivers, too. What about the acoustic guitar parts on the album?
“We have, usually, about three or four guitar players at one time. So, acoustic range is all covered with some of the other guys in the band. But they do amazing, and we influence each other on sounds, and what to play, and when to play. It’s a lot of fun being musicians in a band. It’s all live.”
Different picking styles come up in your playing, which is so prevalent in country music. What’s your approach?
“My picking style usually changes from song to song, really. If it’s more of a country track, I’ll do some chicken picking type stuff and some hybrid- picking. But, quicker, more modern rock stuff, I’ll usually alternate picking, and try and get that kind of sound out of each song. The same way I’ll choose my tone or the guitar selection for a song. I feel how you approach playing it is just as important. I feel the first step in the tone is in your hands. It’s really important to dive into each note of the song, and how you’re going to play it, and how you’re going to approach it.”
You guys connected as a six-piece but were fortunate to have songs from some of the elite songwriters in Nashville.
“We got pitched some of the best songs in Nashville. We decided for this first album, we would take a step back, and just focus on creating the King Calaway sound. And I feel it was a great experience, just to be super creative. I wrote my own guitar parts and my own solos, but the bare bones of the songs were pitched from Nashville songwriters. Rivers is a blueprint for where we want to go in the future. We’re in love with these 12 songs, and we can’t wait to create more.”
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What’s your live setup like?
“Live, I usually try to keep it as simple as possible. I feel it doesn’t take a lot of gear to create a great sound. So, it’s usually my PRS, either a Silver Sky or the McCarty 245 with humbuckers, going through my pedalboard, and directly into my Vox AC30. No matter where I am, I have a Vox AC30 with my rig. That’s kind of the staple of my tone, is the AC30. But, honestly, I’ve been looking at more digital stuff. So, maybe in the future, on live rigs, I may go completely digital, which would be pretty cool. But, for now, I’m very happy with my AC30 and the pedals I have at my feet.”
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So would you give up tube amps?
“Possibly. Nowadays, it’s hard to argue for the tube amp when there are such great digital sounds out there. It’s really impressive hearing them side by side, the real amps and digital amps. Plus, having that consistency on tour would be worth it, leaving it to no one else but myself how the guitars sound. I don’t have to depend on any other producer or anything to judge my tone. But, just directly out of the Kemper or Axe-Fx or whatever digital profiler I’ll use. But, maybe, one day, we’ll get to that.”
What are your hopes for the future?
“I’m really proud to be in this situation that I am with King Calaway and being a PRS artist. It’s always been a dream of mine, so it’s really cool to check those things off my bucket list. But, I hope to keep creating music, and influencing people to pick up the guitar. I get messages all the time, ‘Man, you inspired me to pick up the guitar. I’m now learning because of you.’ It’s such a cool full-circle moment, and I hope to continue that for the rest of my life.”
Rivers is out now on Stoney Creek Records.
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