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Steve Miller says new album takes him back to music he grew up with

By Matt Cherry, CNN
Steve Miller's album "Bingo!" hits stores on June 15.
Steve Miller's album "Bingo!" hits stores on June 15.
  • "BINGO!" features interpretations of B.B. King, Jimmie Vaughan tracks
  • "I wanted to get some material and make it my own," Steve Miller says
  • Album has "lots of lead guitar and cool guitar parts"
  • With growth of internet, audiences today "are really hipper," he says

(CNN) -- Steve Miller admits he has no idea why it took him 17 years to release a new studio album. He also admits he was in no rush to do so.

"We continued to sell records from our touring, and we were really in this sort of magical place where we didn't have to make records until I really wanted to," said Miller, 66, in an interview with CNN Radio. "I've recorded lots of projects, but just haven't bothered to release them."

"BINGO!", however, is not remaining on the shelf. Steve Miller Band's first new studio album since 1993's "Wide River" hits stores on June 15, and sees Miller embracing the blues music he immersed himself in growing up in Dallas. "BINGO!" features his interpretations of tracks like B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby," Jimmy Reed's "You Got Me Dizzy" and Jimmie Vaughan's "Hey Yeah" -- the album's first single.

"This is my pop music. When I was a kid this is what I was listening to on my car radio -- Lowell Fulsom singing "Tramp." "Tramp" is another one of the 10 songs on "BINGO!" (a special edition includes four bonus tracks and expanded artwork.) However, Miller cautions fans this isn't a traditional "covers" album.

"I didn't just want to do a cover of somebody's record," said Miller. "I wanted to get some material and make it my own, and these songs all lent themselves to that." Miller recorded "BINGO!" at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in California. In fact, he cut 42 tracks in all during the sessions there, some of which he says will end up on a second album that has no set release date at this point.

Miller says "BINGO!" can also be considered a "guitar player's album."

"Lots of lead guitar and cool guitar parts have been worked out. It just got better and better and better as we worked on it," he said. Indeed, one of the guest artists on the album is renowned guitarist and 15-time Grammy nominee Joe Satriani, who trades solos with Miller on "Rock Me Baby" and Vaughan's "Sweet Soul Vibe."

"He just plays beautifully," said Miller about his fellow guitarist. "It blows your mind when you hear him. He is a monster guitarist -- a wonderful musician."

Miller says the feedback to "BINGO!" has been entertaining to say the least.

"When we first took the record around to play it for different record guys there were a bunch of young people who really didn't know these songs who said, 'Did Steve write all those.?' It sounds just like the Steve Miller Band!"

Reaction from fans has been gratifying as well, according to Miller. He is in the midst of what has become an annual summer tour of North America and has been giving audiences a sneak preview of the tracks on the new album, mixed in with hits like "Fly Like an Eagle," "The Joker," "Rock'n Me," "Take the Money and Run," and "Abracadabra."

"The audiences nowadays are really hipper than they were in the mid '90s. When our last record was out we'd say, 'OK, we're gonna do a few new songs from our new album "Wide River."' 5,000 people would get up and leave and go get a hot dog until they heard me start the opening riff of "The Joker." It was such a conservative audience, and now the audience is much more interested in the new music."

Miller thinks the reason behind this is the role the internet has played in the music industry.

"We now have the ability to hear so much more music," he said. "I find that a lot of kids today, their musical horizon is as broad as mine was when I was a kid. I was exposed to jazz and blues and gospel and country music and rock, and I was the only kid I knew who knew about that stuff. Now everybody does."

However, Miller says the meshing of the music world and digital world has been a curse along with a blessing, and he feels that it has hurt the industry and its audiences.

"We're putting people out of work," he said. "It's very frustrating to have someone like (Apple co-founder) Steve Jobs portrayed as this great genius. At the same time he's a thief, he's creating machines that steal things. Thirty years from now the people who created the computers we're using will all be indicted for destroying everybody's hearing and for stealing music and intellectual property. But at the same time, we'll know more. It's as damaging as it is enabling."

An Apple spokeswoman refused to comment on Miller's remarks.

Miller says he spent $700,000 in two years making "BINGO!" He predicts no one will follow that business model again because the popularity of downloads ensures musicians won't be able to make a profit off it. Miller says touring is ultimately the most foolproof way he has of making a living.

"I'm OK, I have this huge live audience and you can't copy my show. If you want to see what it's like to see human beings play this music right in front of you for real, you have to buy a ticket. That's the only thing that we really have left that can't just be copied and spread over the place -- actual live performance," he said.

Miller grew up in a musical family. His mother, Bertha, was a singer and his father, Dr. George (Sonny) Miller, was an amateur tape recordist. A young Miller even learned some chords from his father's friend, guitarist Les Paul. However, he says he realizes not everyone has a chance to get that kind of exposure to music at home. So he's devoting part of his summer tour in support of "BINGO!" to raise money for a new music education initiative.

The "text to donate" campaign benefits the Kids Rock Free music education programs at the Fender Center in Corona, California. Miller helped start the programs 11 years ago, and says that during that time 12,000 young people have received free and low-cost music lessons.

"What I'm trying to do is build these schools in everyone's community," said Miller. "It costs about half what a Wendy's restaurant would cost to build. If folks really want music in their community they can do it very cheaply. It doesn't have to be a $50 million program. All we need is just a little real estate."

During his shows, Miller is encouraging people to donate by texting ROCK to 50555. A one-time $10 donation is then added to mobile bills. The fruits of the Kids Rock Free program are also on display during Miller's summer tour. Two of its students are joining the Steve Miller Band at a handful of shows to play guitar with the band for a bit.

"The guitars look huge on them and they play on a couple of tunes and just knock everybody out!"