It’s been nearly a year since Richard Brent walked into my office and said the name Matt McMillan.
“The kid’s got it,” he said in his low, slow drawl.
Richard had been invited to be a judge in the first-ever, shoot-out style open mic competition on The Creek Stage at the Rookery last September. Even if he wasn’t the Executive Director of the Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House (which he is), he would still have been a natural choice. He’s got an ear for talent, and his music knowledge is encyclopedic regardless of genre or decade. I’ve repeatedly turned to him while researching an artist with practically zero Internet presence and while I wouldn’t call him tough to please, Richard is particular.
So when he filled the doorway that morning after witnessing McMillan’s performance at The Rookery and proclaimed it as “the real deal,” I took notice.
The experience left an impression on Matt as well.
“As of last August, actually, I started in law school there [at Mercer University] and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I would much rather spend my writing time writin’ songs instead of legal briefs and whatnot,” says McMillan during an early afternoon phone call.
Matt grew up 80 miles south of Macon in Rochelle, GA where he’d been part of a local group that played bluegrass and gospel music.
“That was the majority of the experience I had playin’ music until I start goin’ out on my own and playin’ my material.”
While earning his undergraduate degree at Valdosta State University, Matt fell in love with literature and poetry. But a chance discovery opened his eyes to the possibility of songwriting.
“I stumbled across the work of Townes Van Zandt, probably in 2018,” remembers the 23-year-old. “I really started focusin’ on his writing and I realized that it was every bit up to par [with] the writers that I really liked that were considered literature– everywhere from the cynicism of Bukowski to Robert Frost. It was really an off a cliff kind of thing, but I just got obsessed. And it’s been no turning back!”
I wouldn’t see Matt perform with my own eyes until COVID-19 drove the Macon music scene to online concerts last spring. Nearly every night, viewers from all over Central Georgia (and the world) tuned in to the Quarantine Concert Series organized by local musician Daniel Graves and Brandon Lawler, owner of JBA. After watching one of Matt’s livestreams, like Richard Brent, I was impressed.
Stylistically, he may have learned at the lyrical feet of Van Zandt, but that brief catechism was enough to encourage the budding singer-songwriter towards the studio where he recorded original material under the banner of Matt McMillan and the City Limits.
“A good friend of mine down here in Rochelle recently– about a year or so ago– bought one of the buildings in the downtown, and we converted it into a recording studio. It’s called High Rock Records,” says McMillan. “In early 2019, I recorded a four-song EP. And then sometime at the end of 2019, I recorded two extra songs.”
For those songs, McMillan enlisted the help of his friend Jeremy King who played pedal steel and engineered the sessions. The soft, driving rhythm of “Santa Fe” echoes early Isbell while “Liars, Lovers, & Leavers” rings more in the vein of Diamonds & Gasoline era Turnpike Troubadours.
McMillan, like most of the artists currently enduring the COVID-19 pandemic, is writing as much as possible while making plans to complete his first full-length album at High Rock Records. The project will feature local Rochelle musicians in the role of the City Limits– an incarnation Matt hopes to see expand beyond the studio.
“Bein’ a singer-songwriter, you travel with just you and an acoustic [guitar]. And that’s awesome, and it’s very intimate. I enjoy that a lot, but I found in terms of when you’re unknown and you show up and say, ‘Can I play a gig?’ And it’s just you and some sad songs and an acoustic, they’re like, ‘I don’t think that’s gonna sell drinks in my bar tonight!'”