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Singer-songwriter Valorie Miller lived near a former chemical weapons plant in Swannanoa and wrote an album about it

Valorie Miller's new album, "Only the Killer Would Know," documents her experiences living near toxic land in Swannanoa
Meg Reilley
Valorie Miller's new album, "Only the Killer Would Know," documents her experiences living near toxic land in Swannanoa

In the early months of the pandemic, Valorie Miller found a log cabin for rent in North Asheville. From her porch, it seems she’s in the middle of the woods, without a neighbor in sight.

Miller said she feels so at peace here. It’s a peace she never felt during his six years in Swannanoa.

“Maybe the first or second night I spent there, I had a dream that my property, that the earth was like a thin skin over a giant garbage heap, that I was living on a giant garbage heap that was aware I was there and that had ill intent, that was kind of evil,” she recalled. “And when I woke up the next morning, I had the feeling that dream is real, that something is wrong here.”

In the early 2000s, Miller bought an acre of land on Bee Tree Road in Swannanoa and placed a single-wide trailer on it. At the time, she didn’t know this land was adjacent to the former home of Chemtronics, a maker of chemical warfare agents. The EPA has designated it a Superfund site, among the country’s most contaminated and toxic. Cleaning it is expected to take at least another 25 years.

Miller won’t talk in any detail about the impacts to her health she connects to living there, and she long ago gave up hopes of a legal remedy. The music inspired by her experiences is hemmed to a feeling of betrayal.

Her new album is called “Only the Killer Would Know.” The title could head a mystery novel, but the music is soft, spare, sad yet hopeful. Miller celebrates the release with a show May 7 at Roadmaster Stage in Black Mountain.

“I went through the phase—this is so sad, but probably a lot of people do who live next to a place like this—where you start researching and making calls as if something will be able to happen,” she said. “But as you find out, there’s not going to be an answer coming your way.”

Miller has been a fixture in the regional Americana scene since the late ‘90s and her musical and romantic partnership with celebrated Weaverville native Malcolm Holcombe. Miller had dabbled with an acoustic guitar, but she said Holcombe encouraged her to buy an upright bass and hit the road with him. She credits Holcombe with fueling her confidence as a songwriter.

“When I first met him, he would (say) ‘Oh, my manager this and that,’ and I just kinda thought he was just making up stories and, pretty quickly, I realized he had a four-star review in Rolling Stone,” she said. “We drove to New York City a bunch. We opened for Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, Wilco—all these people, as I was learning to play the bass.”

Miller said her split from Holcombe was painful. She thought they were making a home together in Swannanoa. She moved there alone.

“It was horrible because I lost the guy I thought I was gonna be with and I lost my job,” she said. “I did a lot of the work, like I was the only driver and I did a lot of the carrying, the physical stuff. But there were other people to book the shows and promote it, so I just got to play, which was awesome. So the idea of starting my own cottage industry and taking care of all those details was super overwhelming to me.”

Today, with “Only the Killer Would Know,” Miller is eight albums into her solo career and well into writing her next. She said what remains of her research into the Superfund site in Swannanoa are scattered articles, more than 200 pages of a printed document and written correspondence between community neighbors and EPA officials—all in a box somewhere.

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.