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Real and raw

Singer and guitarist Shelley Beth Miller takes it to the streets.
Aaron Mayes

That’s just how pain-haunted rocker Shelley Beth Miller — beloved by bikers from here to Sturgis — likes it 

Seven immaculate, custom-built choppers stand proud near the entrance of Valhalla Cycles, located at the northern tip of town, across from the Las Vegas Speedway. The racetrack is silent, but there’s a beautiful noise coming from inside the shop — not emanating from a vintage Harley but from the pipes of a badass balladeer named Shelley Beth Miller. She’s been booked by Valhalla to entertain a few dozen special guests for its grand opening today.

She and her man, Jeff Johnson, set up a pair of portable Mackie speakers, a barstool, a microphone inside a cigar box that she stomps on with her right foot, and her three guitars — a vintage acoustic with a steel slide, a classic silver-plated Dobro and a Hee Haw banjo. “Hey, how’s it going? I’m Shelley,” she smiles. “Gonna sing a few songs for you if that’s okay?” Before any of the bandana-wearing patrons can formulate a response, the striking 44-year-old Detroit native is firing on all cylinders. Jaws munching dogs and chips fall open in unison, taken joyfully aback by her Johnny Cash/Bonnie Raitt hybrid.

“The ringleader now is just a dead ringer but his spirit lives forever/I can hear the crowd singing, he was a galloping stallion and exhausted bull/When he reached the Grand Canyon, I could hear the echo/Only the strong survive/You better keep your head alive, oh yeah!”

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On the concrete floor where they transform rusted relics into six-figure road rockets, Shelley wails the stark verse through clenched eyes like she was performing to a packed house at the Pearl. Tearing up the track (inspired by a late friend named Alex “who always had my back”), her calloused fingers strum hard chords as her smoky, Joplin-like voice hypnotizes the easy riders. When she concludes her 70-minute set, the crowd hoots and hollers, every man woman and child in the room convinced that this strange creature who rolled in from the desert is most certainly a survivor.

“I always pick the wrong guys. Why? Because I know it won’t last, and there’s always a good song at the end.

“I grew up near Seven and Woodward, south of Eminem’s 8 Mile,” she recalls. “Tough multi-racial streets where gangs, pimps and prostitutes ran the night. I was pumping iron and learning karate when I was 14. Couldn’t walk down the street without getting yelled at. I got kicked out of Hazel Park High ’cause they found out my parents were using an address that wasn’t ours so I wouldn’t have to go to Pershing High, which was the worst school on the face of the Earth — had to walk through a metal detector to get to class.”

The biker community knows and loves Shelley. She’s played Sturgis and other two-wheel festivals, been written up in motorcycle mags like Backstreet Choppers and cultivated a local following doing bike nights at Hooters when she first moved to Las Vegas in 2006. She moonlit her music at clubs around the valley, such as Mr. D’s, Sand Dollar, the old Cellar on Sahara, Pandora’s Box, Henderson Harley Davidson and, more recently, Hogs & Heifers (“Hogs is like family to me”) and Bar & Bistro.

“Shelley is the love child of Detroit rock and Texas tone,” observes Seth Yudof, founder of UD Factory, a Vegas-based management company whose clients include Blues Traveler and Plain White Tees.  “She captures the raw perspective of living and working in Las Vegas rather than the typical glitz-and-glam tourist experience.”

So how did she get here, you ask? “I was in California working heating and cooling, painting and drywall,” she says. “My friend calls me from Vegas with a job opportunity, to work on the new Steve Wynn property, Encore. Worked on that palace from the ground up. Painting and wood-finishing were my main responsibility. Paid my rent while I picked up bar gigs around town. I’m good at construction, but my true passion is music. I’d be dead without it.”

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With broken-hearted ballads aplenty, her catalog caters to a self-confessed life-long trouble with relationships. “Men are intimidated by my strength,” she laments, tongue in cheek. “I always pick the wrong guys. Why? Because I know it won’t last, and there’s always a good song at the end. Got one called, ‘Good from Afar, Far from Good,’ and another titled, ‘Hit the Devil with a Shovel and Dropped Him a Level.’ My roots stem from rejection and pain, yet I find myself genuinely happy for the most part. I am a rough-around-the-edges kind of girl who likes to keep it real and raw.”

When it comes to mining the heart and soul for creative cues, Shelley needs look no further than family, where incidentally, rests her greatest pain and challenge.

“My parents were born in the South. My dad, Samuel Lee, was in a blues band, played guitar and harmonica; he met my mom at a gig. She was a singer who came to see him play. Dad was a janitor for General Motors where he worked for 30 years. My brother Marty taught me how to work on bikes and cars. He’s been in prison since 1984. Wrote a few songs about him.”

According to Shelley, Marty was with a guy who was hired by someone else to break into a house and steal jewelry. In the process, a murder was committed. “He was part of the crime,” she admits, “but he was not there to kill anyone.”

Marty Miller got life. His little sister believes he’ll someday gain his release through newly discovered forensic evidence.

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“My brother is the most positive person I know,” she says. “I see him when I’m in Michigan. He crochets for the homeless, is always positive and never asks anyone for anything except perhaps to mail something for him. He researches stuff for me, how to get my songs out there. I adore him and his strength of conviction.”

Tears were running down the neck of my Fender 12-string the day I recorded that song and attached Marty’s words to the beginning, where they fit perfectly.

Marty’s voiceover, taken from a phone call he made from prison, opens one of Shelley’s most powerful tracks, “Marked for Life.” She asked him to simply riff on his state of mind: There ain’t no second chance, he tells her, so make it count. “Tears were running down the neck of my Fender 12-string the day I recorded that song and attached Marty’s words to the beginning, where they fit perfectly,” she adds. The song gets electric, heavy, angry, throttled by a wicked guitar solo and crushing beat. Shelley delivers a throat-ripping vocal, exorcising her own frustration and agony.

Connecting her two towns, Detroit and Las Vegas, Shelley wrote a song called “Sin City,” and produced a homemade video that views like an alternative Chamber of Commerce meets What Happens in Vegas advertising clip. It’s a brutally honest ballad that celebrates our neon metropolis’ darker side as seen through the eyes of a perceptive transplant: “Rolling into town think you’re gonna lay it down, everybody wants to be your friend/Show you everything introduce your pretty face to recognize the one who just blew in. …” With a monstrous hook and incendiary vocal, this song would fit like a sticky leather glove right into hard-rock radio playlist. Watch the video on You Tube. It’s low-budget brilliant.

While shooting scenes for the clip downtown, Shelley ran into former mayor Oscar Goodman, who almost made a cameo appearance. “I saw him at the Tap Room one night in 2011,” she recalls. “I go there for the awesome double-baked Cajun chicken wings. Mr. Goodman was with his wife, eating pizza. I asked him if he’d like to do a shot where we’re both handing our bottles of water to the homeless on Fourth Street. He agreed, but during the exact days I was editing the video, my father was dying from COPD in Michigan. I wanted to finish the clip, show my dad, while he was still coherent, that I could complete something important, so there was no time to get the Goodman shot. I’m hard on myself.”

That do-it-herself thing is just part of who she is. Miller has never had a booking agent, promoter or manager. With house-painting as her day job (construction work has “taken its toll on my body and influenced just how heavy I play due to back aches and my hands hurting all the time”), she says she’s content in her faith that her needs will be taken care of. Her robust songbook of blues-rock and boogie-woogie has obvious appeal beyond the cycle culture, and she’s excited for her upcoming “outlaw swamp” release, Autograph that Tombstone. “I’ve slept next to the back side of falling down,” she laughs. And whatever happens, there’s always her 1960 Triumph Bonneville, which Shelley rebuilt herself. “I’m a rat-rod rust girl. Been riding since I was 9, ain’t got no intention of stopping. Long as I can kick it over is as long as I will ride.”