Guitar Guy

Education, accident divert seasoned musician Mills from his six-string

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Daniel Mills offers instruction to a student Monday during a guitar lesson. Mills has recently decided to focus his musical talents on teaching following a 2004 injury that interrupted his performance career.

Daniel Mills' long fingers cradled the neck of the guitar as his eyes took in the faces around him.

"Let's try this again," he offered.

Several hands came down on the strings of their guitars, left hands groping for chords.

Through the painstaking minutes, Mills maintained his sea calm smile, coaxing out his students' confidence.

"One, two, three," he counted slowly, naming the chords. "...And back to D."

Teaching in borrowed space at the Kroc Center is different from where Mills used to be.

For years, his days were measured by itinerant stops at music venues across the West, performing with musicians whose names have appeared on mass produced CDs.

Then the injury happened.

His coast to stardom floundered - and was over forever, he thought for awhile.

But after a paced recovery and an unexpected leg up from some Coeur d'Alene loyalists, the guitar came back in his hands last year.

Settled again in the Lake City, Mills is focused on teaching, he said. He's looking for as many students as he can find, in fact, to teach them the love that has fueled his life.

And from there, who knows?

"I'm a lifer," the 32-year-old said. "I'm going to die with a guitar in my hands."

On Monday afternoon, he urged his students again.

"We'll do it one more time with counting, and then we'll try to add singing, which will be a whole new monster for us to tackle," he said.

One student laughed.

"Except for you," the kid said.

Mills knows all about life on the road.

Like how searing hot a van gets on a road trip. Or how forced thriftiness can make a man shoplift at Walmart. Or how endless hours on the phone are necessary to book a gig.

For a while, enduring the slings and arrows of touring was his whole life.

"My whole goal was if I stayed out long enough, I'd make it. Ani DiFranco style," Mills said. "I wanted to stay out there."

He'd always figured that's where he was headed.

Playing guitar has consumed his life since he was 14, he said. It was all he did, picking and strumming and losing himself for hours, taking lessons at North Idaho College.

Much of his devotion stemmed from his father, Brad Mills, who had been a jazz musician in New Orleans jamming with the likes of Duke Ellington, before a brain injury from a car accident stunted his abilities and restricted him to small venues.

"I grew up listening to him playing in churches," said Mills, a California native raised in Spirit Lake. "To have him not be able to help me with that (learning guitar), because he had been a world class musician, felt like a loss. I was missing out on something."

But Mills still honed his craft. Around 19 he moved to Coeur d'Alene and taught guitar at the Northwest Academy of Music. He tested his fingers playing with a local band that included Tom Rutley, the bass player for Carlos Santana and Ray Charles.

"I forget about time when I'm playing," he explained. "I can sit down for five hours and forget about the time that's passed."

His efforts paid off.

At 23, he was signed with Click Pop Records in Bellingham, Wash., and recorded his first CD.

"I'd say it was just his approach to it (is why we signed him)," said Dave Richards, co-owner of Click Pop. "What we look for is musically it's got to be interesting and engaging, and at the same time, he (Mills) is a hard worker and willing to tour."

Mills recalls his first album as sophomoric.

"It was certainly my first," he said with a chuckle.

But good enough, at least, to book him hundreds of tours.

In the early to mid '00s, Mills' travels traced the route from Seattle to Phoenix to San Francisco to Salt Lake City, hitting the cities and all the hamlets in between.

Roving in his roasting van, he performed at holes in the walls and cherished area venues alike. At every stop, he was on the phone to pin down where he headed next.

"It was my work ethic that drove the thing," he said.

Money didn't come fast, he conceded. Sometimes he scraped barely enough from one show to get to the next town and keep food in his stomach.

Meeting the right people and putting out his music brought success, though, like opening for '90s hit band Reel Big Fish in Arizona.

"It was tight financially, but I didn't need anything," Mills said. "I didn't need anything to entertain me, because everything was an adventure."

Like a day in Seattle when he glimpsed Dave Matthews strolling by.

He managed to snag an invitation to breakfast with the rock star, where Mills handed Matthews his CD and they munched on bacon and eggs and discussed how hard it is to find a shower on I-5.

"Absolutely nothing," Mills said with a chuckle of what came out of the meeting. "If I would've had a more mature album, maybe something would have happened."

He had intended to stay on the road, he said. To try as long as he could to make it.

Until one day in 2004, when he pulled up to a stoplight in Portland, and a car barreled into him from behind and broke his neck.

The pain accumulated over time. Progressively debilitating, the nerve damage in his arms forced Mills to play mostly with his right hand.

"I knew I needed medical treatment," he said.

Knowing that required a steady income, he took a job working at Starbucks in Portland in 2005.

It earned him more than free coffee. There he met and befriended John Steup, regular coffee consumer as well as vice president of the independent music distributor CD Baby.

Sensing Mills' ambition, Steup took a chance and hired him to consult with performers.

"There's something about Dan," Steup explained over the phone. "There's warmth to him, but a complexity."

CD Baby opened up chances for Mills to perform in shows with big names, like Craig Montoya of Everclear.

"Hands down, he (Mills) is a talented guy," Steup said. "Music seemed to be the most important thing in his life."

But that screeched to a halt. Mills' chronic pain eventually prevented him from playing at all, or even typing on his keyboard at work.

"Doctors were unable to find exactly what the problem was," Mills said. "I needed something that used my brain, not my body."

That meant quitting guitar and heading back to school.

Three years Mills devoted to studying math at community colleges in Portland and outside Denver, while living in his car.

It was hard to watch, said Steup, who kept in touch with the young musician.

"I was really worried for him that he wouldn't keep playing music," he said. "I know what it's like as a musician to take a break because things come up."

But when Mills visited Coeur d'Alene two winters back, he was in for a surprise.

He was able to play again with local musicians.

"I was starting to heal," he said.

He wanted to return to music, and to Coeur d'Alene. But what about finishing his degree?

Mills sought out Sandy Hardin Clemons, a fellow artist and Coeur d'Alene resident who had proven a sagely advisor over the years.

As always, Clemons said, she knew the right thing to say.

"I said, 'You know, if God gave you an ability for music, and that's where your heart is, why are you doing your back-up plan?'" recalled Clemons, owner of Ain't It Good Productions talent agency.

He considered, then called her back.

"I have no place to live," she remembered him admitting. "Would you mind putting me up for awhile?"

She didn't.

"I already have four boys," she said with a laugh. "What's another one?"

Mills stayed with the Clemons clan for nine months.

Between yard work and chores to earn his keep, he composed, hunted for students, worked with his new band, Daniel Abram (his new stage name) and the X'd Out.

Now living on his own, he boasts an arsenal of 30 new songs. He is also composing for a client of Clemons'.

His posters around town urge folks to call (503) 367-1462 to learn one-on-one with him.

If his touring days are done, he said, fine.

"I know the guitar is my craft, my purpose," he said. "If nothing else, I'll make a living teaching guitar the rest of my life."

Steup said he has observed a major change in Mills since his return to Coeur d'Alene.

"I don't think I've ever heard Dan so happy," he said. "That was really a homecoming for him."

Mills knows he needs to be here, Clemons said.

"He's not saying 'When I get some phantom form of success, I'm going to be happy,'" she said. "He's enjoying what he's doing now."

On Monday, Mills led his young students through another rendition of chords.

As they strummed, following his fingers, he opened his mouth and released a quiet warble.

"Ama-zing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me-e," he sang. "I once was lo-ost, but no-ow am found, was blind, but now I see-e."

He smiled at the group and nodded.

"Awesome. You guys are doing really well," he said. "Let's take it again."

Daniel Mills plays chords while teaching fundamental guitar techniques.

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