Johnny and his Apple Stompers remind us pure country still exists


Johnny and the Apple Stompers perform in Acorn Alley Friday, Sept. 19, 2014 as part of Kent’s Rountown Music Festival.

Mark Oprea

“Well, I caught you honky tonkin’ with my best friend,” Johnny Miller sang as he kicked out his mud-brown boots at Acorn Alley, “The thing to do was leave you, but I should’a left then.”

Who said that “honky tonkin’” isn’t still a thing?

Miller, leader of his group The Apple Stompers, played George Jones’ “Why Baby Why,” and many other classic country hits with his five piece band at the ‘Round Town Music Festival on Friday, Sept. 19. Formerly known by the moniker Grandpa Johnny, Miller has been spreading his brand of hillbilly music around Northeast Ohio for years, and he’s a common sight around Kent. Yet it’s his voice, which sounds something like a young Jimmie Rodgers, which seems to be rare for most 25-year-old country singers.

The guitarist and Cuyahoga Falls native said it’s because he’s not so hip to the contemporary.

“The country music on the radio today is kind of iffy,” Miller said. “It used to be more pure.”

Paired with fiddle player Cory Grinder, Miller has been playing the Kent bar and music shop scene for the last four years. He can often be found sporting a two-tone vintage Western shirt, his hair greased back if not covered by a wide-brimmed hat. But, as the Hank Williams songs that Miller covers tell us, it’s the music behind the persona that needs to be kept alive.

Miller’s country-loving shtick began with his family. As a kid, he would often hear old bluegrass and Appalachian folk being played around his house by his father or grandfather. Because only distant relatives were musicians, Miller didn’t pick up the guitar until he began listening to country music seriously, more than just as an appreciator. Other than contemporary singers like Dale Watson and Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Miller mostly stuck with the classics — men who sang tunes about “pretty women and race horses.” 

As far as the sound goes with modern country, Miller said a lot has turned mainstream.

“It’s gotten so mixed with pop,” he said. “The themes have changed, yes, but the ideas are still kind of there.”

Looking beyond the stereotypical flannel shirt tucked into Levis and the foot-stomping, Miller claims he really is the real deal. Working four days a week as a prep chef at the Beachtree Southern Style Restaurant in Hudson, Miller spends the majority of his free time strumming his acoustic and writing music. During the week he’s out playing open mics or street busking. On the weekends, he drinks whiskey after bar gigs. To many, Miller and his crew play the parts off the stage just as much as they do on.

Miller agrees.

“I like to keep me surrounded with that kind of support,” he said, laughing.

Nancy Peters, a percussionist who played alongside Miller and Grinder at a show in Willoughby, Ohio, said it’s rare to see a group like The Apple Stompers around Kent. She looks back to the Willoughby gig as an explanation why.

“They definitely blew us out of the water,” she said.

Peters, like many at The ‘Round Town gig, danced to often-forgotten tunes by Flatt Scruggs and Johnny Horton, along with originals off of Johnny and The Apple Stompers’ first album, Down the Line. Joined by Rodney DeWalt on lead guitar, Richard DeWalt on upright bass and Steven “Tebbs” Karney on the pedal steel, Miller and Grinder played a two-hour set to a crowd that preferred to keep their feet moving. 

And ever since Miller met Grinder, he’s been traveling to shows and festivals in Cleveland, Ohio and the Carolinas, spreading the gospel of the old time country greats. He’s even gone as far as Nashville, and digs the scene, even if it is, as he said, “leaning towards the pop side of the spectrum.”

Along with what he claims to be “his best group yet,” Miller is planning his third album due for this coming Spring. Still planning local shows in Kent, street busking in Cleveland, and more down-South rambling, Miller said he’s not so much in a hurry to burst onto any grandiose scene. Along with sideman Grinder, he’s fine with the weekly local gigs.

“We like to just take it one day at a time,” he said.

Contact Mark Oprea at [email protected].