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It’s the end of March, and a debate on campaign finance reform is raging on Capitol Hill. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., is pitched forward on the edge of a sofa in his inner office at the Dirksen Building with an important question for a visitor. But it has nothing to do with soft money. “You know the difference between a violin and a fiddle?” he asks. Getting no answer, he sits back, causing his pants legs to lift a little and reveal the fancy stitching on his boots. “There’s not any difference. The difference is who plays it.” Clearly, Miller is not one to get entirely swept up in the Beltway’s obsessions. In fact, his passion for music has been with him longer, and maybe stronger, than his passion for politics. “I don’t play an instrument,” he says, putting on a rueful air. “Hell, I wouldn’t be here if I could play an instrument.” The occasion for Miller’s comments is the release of a CD, “Georgia: I’m Going to Make You Happy.” A compilation of recordings made in Georgia in the 1930s and ’40s, the songs were taped by the legendary father-and-son team of folklorists, John and Alan Lomax, and associates including the author Zora Neale Hurston and folk blues singer Leadbelly. The disc is part of an ongoing series from Rounder Records — called “Deep River of Song” — that makes available much of the Lomaxes’ treasure trove of American and international folk recordings. The Georgia set includes illuminating historical notes from University of Memphis professor David Evans, tracing the songs and instruments back to their African, European, and rural Southern roots. Some of the songs — country blues and rags, gospel, and raw-boned field hollers — were taped in prisons. Some were recorded at a festival outside Macon, Ga. Many of the artists are unknowns, although several of the tunes are brilliant. None, as obscure as they are, faze Miller. “I am familiar with some of what you have here,” he says. “I’ve got some of this stuff.” When it comes to Georgia music, it would be hard to surprise Miller. One of the books he has written, “They Heard Georgia Singing,” profiles well over 100 artists, bands, and industry types who were born in Georgia, bred there, or in some cases just passed through for a spell. Many country music stars have pitched in at Miller fund-raisers, going back to his first run for statewide office in 1960 and continuing through his 2000 Senate campaign. On this day, Miller’s got the new disc on the boom box in his office, playing Blind Willie McTell’s “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues.” “Blind Willie was one of the greatest 12-string pickers there’s ever been,” says Miller, “And he played without a pick.” Miller then points out that a McTell tune, “Statesboro Blues,” was an early staple for some other notable Georgia musicians, the Allman Brothers, and that McTell used to perform regularly at a joint called the Blue Lantern on Ponce de Le�n Avenue in Atlanta. Miller is also familiar with the Bellwood Prison Camp, where another of the tunes was recorded in 1934. “I know exactly where the old Bellwood Prison used to be,” he says. “It was kind of a rough neighborhood, somewhat racially mixed. I knew it well as a boy.” But Miller’s tastes cross geographical and musical boundaries. He says he loves concert violinist (not fiddler) Robert McDuffie — “You know he’s a Georgia boy?” — claims Mozart’s “Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos” as a favorite classical piece, and a few years ago got Sony Records to back his plan to distribute CDs of classical music, believed to facilitate learning in infants, to the parents of Georgia newborns. In 1994, for Country Music magazine, he put together a personal top 10 list, heavy with weepers made famous by country superstar and non-Georgian George Jones: “She Thinks I Still Care,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Just Someone I Used to Know.” Miller also lists “Rank Stranger,” a tune by the Stanley Brothers, with this note: “Absolutely no song makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end and gives me goose bumps like this bluegrass classic.” Miller wants the song to be played at his funeral. He says that these days he mostly listens to bluegrass and gospel, which is more or less where he started when he was growing up in the 1930s in the Northern Georgia town of Young Harris. “When I was a little boy, there was a man who lived down the dirt road, an old-time mountain fiddler. His name was Lee Kirby. I can remember him being on the front porch — where I came from, back then people sat on their front porches, especially late in the afternoon. “I could go down there late in the afternoon, after supper, and he would play just one tune after the other. Some of them would be long and mournful songs, old-timey stuff that he got from his father, and I guess his father had gotten it from his father. And I’m sure it went back to Scotland. He’d go from playing these mournful slow songs to playing what he called a ditty — I think folks call them breakdowns now, but he called them ditties. He’d say, ‘How’d ya like that ditty?’ And I liked that ditty, and I would sit there with him for just as long as he would play.” Years later, after Miller had finished his stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, he attended the University of Georgia and met Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, who was to become a huge country star in the 1960s and 1970s and a good friend. Miller is also close with Jack Clement, a producer who worked with Charlie Pride and with Charlie Rich in their heydays and, much later, with U2. Miller reaches into his office desk and pulls out a folder containing photos of him with all kinds of music stars. In one, he stands alongside country chart-topper Alan Jackson, songwriter Joe South, and others at a fund-raiser, a banner behind them reading, “Zell Yes!” Another shows Miller with his wife, Shirley, and a rather, shall we say, relaxed-looking Waylon Jennings along with his then-wife, singer Jessi Colter. Asked about the dangers of a public official associating with the likes of Jennings, who revels in his reputation as a country outlaw and who certainly lives the life he sings about, Miller stands up arrow-straight as though he’s just heard distant gunfire. His press secretary, Joan Kirchner, calls from across the room, “You’re on your own on this one.” Without a word, Miller rifles through the photos to find another picture with Jennings, taken years later and with everyone looking more dignified. “See,” says Miller. “We all cleaned up our acts.” After listening to a group of Bellwood convicts sing “Longest Train I Ever Saw,” Miller recalls one of his many stories where music and politics crossed paths. “Tammy Wynette once played for me,” he says proudly, “and didn’t believe my check was any good. “In 1966 I ran for Congress, unsuccessfully. But we had a wonderful campaign. One Saturday, I got Bill [Anderson] to come down and we went around to eight or nine towns, and they’d come out to hear Bill play, and I’d make a speech. Bill could’ve got elected. But I didn’t … . To make a long story short, we got behind our schedule, so I decided that, to get us back on, we’d skip Blairsville, which was right close to where I lived. I told Bill that they’d understand, and that those were my home folks. “Well, they didn’t understand at all: They were mad as hell. That was on Saturday. On Monday and Tuesday I really began to catch hell up there.” Miller pleaded with Anderson for a makeup engagement, but Anderson couldn’t do it. He did, however, agree to help find a replacement, and a few weeks later called with the news that an up and coming singer, Wynette, was coming through the area. “Nobody’s ever heard of her, but she’s really good,” Anderson told Miller. “And so,” says Miller, “One August afternoon in 1966, Tammy Wynette came and did a show for me in Blairsville. She was really good … . Bill did this stuff for gratis, but Tammy charged me $150. So I wrote her a $150 check.” The check was on the Bank of Hiawassee, a town about 16 miles from Blairsville, and Wynette’s next move was to go directly to the bank and place the check before the teller, who happened to be Miller’s wife. According to Miller, Wynette said, “I’ve got a check on this guy, this politician, and I sure would like to cash it before I leave town.” As Miller wraps up the story, he begins to notice the low hum of a Senate buzzer, which has been droning on and off for a few minutes. He also takes in the edgy look on Kirchner’s face and the presence of a fresh-faced young aide who has materialized in a corner of the office, waiting to escort the senator to the floor for a vote. “Is that a vote coming up?” he says, surprised. “Excuse me, I’ve got to go. I thought all we were doing was keeping some politician waiting.” Bill Kisliuk is senior editor of Legal Times.

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