Rhett Miller celebrated his 38th birthday last weekend, but it’s pretty likely that the party had to start without him.
The bash, at his three-acre spread in New York’s Hudson Valley, was set for the middle of the Dallas Cowboys’ regular-season opener against the Cleveland Browns, and although Miller hasn’t lived in Dallas for years, he clings to his love of the Cowboys and the Stars the same way he loyally clings to the Old 97’s, the band he formed in Dallas with old friend Murry Hammond in 1993.
Over the last 15 years, the group, frequently lumped into the alt-country subgenre, has released seven critically praised studio albums, while Miller has found the moonlighting time to make two slightly poppier solo albums, 2002’s The Instigator, and 2006’s The Believer (he says he’s currently sitting on “a pile of songs” for what he expects to be a quiet, acoustic solo record).
Four months ago, the Old 97’s returned to action after a four-year dormant period, with a new album, Blame It On Gravity, that ranks among their best. So it’s a little surprising that Miller will be coming to Sam’s Burger Joint on September 17 as an acoustic solo artist. Like his birthday plans, however, the mini-tour can be connected directly to his need for a Lone Star fix.
“There was that week before the ACL Festival, and I wanted to bring my whole family down to Texas for the week,” Miller says. “So I figured if I booked a few shows it would justify the trip, make a little dough, and keep my chops up. It’s just fun to do.”
Miller attended Dallas’s private St. Mark’s School in the ‘80s, two years behind a bad-boy football player named Owen Wilson. He remembers hearing from classmates that the teenage Wilson, who he describes as “immensely popular in a sort of effortless way,” had offered $15 to anyone who would beat up Miller, causing the future Old 97 to hide in the bushes for the entirety of a Friday-night football game. A sensitive outcast with soft, feminine features who’d failed at athletics, Miller went through a dark stretch in his mid-teens. He’d barely survived a suicide attempt at 14 and didn’t really find his emotional way until he devoted himself to music. Early on, his desperate need to reach people with his songs occasionally steered him away from his natural strengths.
By the time he formed the Old 97’s, he had nothing to lose. Four years earlier, at the age of 18, he’d generated national attention with a folky solo album called Mythologies, which reflected his teenage David Bowie preoccupations and the literary bent of his songwriting approach (“Song for Truman Capote”). When a Billboard review suggested that major-label A&R men would soon be knocking down his door, Miller became fixated on scoring a record deal. He tried on and disposed of new bands like socks, including one short-lived, Nirvana-inspired punk outfit named Rhett’s Exploding.
No one in Dallas could deny his knack for clever wordplay and winsome melodies, but some scenesters had taken to joking that if it was a new week, Rhett surely had a new band. Miller recalls the post-Mythologies/pre-Old 97’s period as one of extreme artistic confusion.
“It’s hard to second-guess anything, but I think a lot of the attention I got really early made me waste a couple of years,” he says. “When `the Billboard review ran`, I kind of took that to heart a little bit, and I think I spent two or three years in there trying to make music that was going to be commercial. I think I was focusing so much on trying to score a major-label record contract, which is so funny that that’s what you shoot for: ‘I can’t wait to sign a contract. Boy, that’ll be great.’”
The Old 97’s took a deliberately low-key path, playing small, unpublicized shows in Austin, but it didn’t take long for them to catch on. They were never country purists, but they borrowed country’s rhythmic swing, which perfectly suited ironic, understated Miller narratives such as “Lonely Holiday” and “Indefinitely.”
“Murry brought so much of that `country influence` to the table,” Miller says. “He was the one who introduced me to a lot of the old-timey country music that really made it possible for me to like country music again. He’s the one who’s pushed that agenda a little more than I have over the years. But it’s good, because in the end it’s really just folk music, and that’s what I grew up loving, with the Kingston Trio and Bob Dylan.”
The band’s devoted fan base has long included actor Vince Vaughn, who wrote them into his 2006 comedy film, The Break-Up , for an extended concert scene (Jennifer Aniston’s character invites ex-boyfriend Vaughn to an Old 97’s show, and he stands her up). “It was a really good exerience,” Miller says. “It’s not like it made such a real difference in our career necessarily, but if somebody says, ‘I don’t really know who your band is,’ you can say, ‘Did you see that movie?’ It validates us in their eyes.”
Married with two young children, Miller has learned over the last five years to adjust to the loss of the solitary time that most songwriters depend upon.
“I built an office in my garage, and the door locks, but as soon as I get down there and come up with an idea, `the kids` are knocking on the door. They’re so sweet, I can’t kick ‘em out. You know, they’ve always got ideas for their own songs. They’re always about poopy or martians.”
Since 1998, the Old 97’s have followed the Pavement long-distance band model, with Miller, Hammond, lead guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Phil Peeples scattered across the country. It’s a testament to the band’s confidence that they’ll often begin a tour with no more than a long opening-night soundcheck for rehearsal.
“It’s funny,” he says. “Every single night of my life I have dreams about being in the band - being in the hotel or on the stage. It’s almost like I see those guys every night in my dreams anyway. How can I miss them if they won’t go away?” •
$13 pre-sale, $16 at the door
8pm Wed, Sep 17
Sam’s Burger Joint
330 E. Grayson