Posted June 15, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

Rhett Miller of Old 97’s: There’s still a life to be made in art

Old 97's, photo by Eric Ryan Anderson
Old 97's, photo by Eric Ryan Anderson

Dallas-based alt-country heroes Old 97’s have been around long enough to see the record industry rise and fall. The band’s rootsy, barroom rock has won it a loyal fan following. The group is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. The band’s recently released tenth studio album, Most Messed Up, includes several songs that chronicle the band’s career. Singer-guitarist Rhett Miller spoke to us via phone from New Orleans on what he referred to as “day two of leg two of the Most Messed Up World Tour.”

Does all the attention you’re getting now make you think the band has been taken for granted?
I don’t know that I feel like anyone has taken us for granted. We’ve always had big appreciative audiences. It is a little weird 20 years in to have this newfound success, I guess. You know what they say—better late than never. I’ll take it. It’s awesome.

You address the band’s history very directly in “Longer than You’ve Been Alive.” You even say you don’t like self-referential songs. Did you have any qualms about putting it on the album?
I’ve always been real conscious of writing songs that were too specifically about my own life.  I love the idea of songs being applicable to everyone who listens to them. That said, sometimes, the most universal sentiments are the most personal and the most honest. In “Longer than You’ve Been Alive” I talk about my job. It’s a really weird job. I don’t know of a lot of people who have been lead singers in rock bands for two decades. It’s a strange perspective I get to have. I love it. It’s weird. It’s also not what people think it is most of the time. I was trying to talk about that. There was an era when mystique was such a part of rock ’n’ roll. Now, you know what your favorite rock star is eating for breakfast. You know what coffee shop they go to. You know whose shoes they’re wearing. The level of intimacy now is great. I love that it’s not fraudulent like it once was. This song for me was an attempt for me to strip away all the mystique and the bullshit.

You even know what’s on a band rider.
I love that. They just published a list of what it cost to have your favorite band play your party.

How much for the Old 97’s?
I think they had us listed for $25-30,000.  That’s not always the case. It depends on time and location. Sometimes we get more and sometimes we settle for less.

Wasted” addresses the band’s history too.
That song, as quiet and understated as it is, was the first song of this whole stack of thematically linked songs. We were in Memphis loading into this shithole club that doesn’t exist anymore. It was about a year ago. I was thinking about the people who had gone to my high school and the jobs they have and the bank accounts they have and their investment portfolios. I was feeling envy, which is a useless thing. As a salve, I started this song that was my argument for the choice I made, which was to bring music to the world instead of trying to make money. I gave a speech at my alma mater once and told the kids that it makes sense for you to make money and go into business or law or whatever you’re going to get into. These kids were smart. They’re going to get good jobs. I was trying to tell them that whatever job you pick is great, just make sure it’s what you want to do. If you’re afraid of making a stupid career choice, I think you’ll regret it later.

A stupid career choice is way better than making a career choice that hurts your soul in the long run. The bottom has fallen out of art and music. I don’t want to lose art and music. I don’t want to live in that world.

You’ve seen the ups and downs of the music industry.
Yeah, we got dumped by the major label as they were going out of business. That ship was sinking. That’s the other thing about “Longer than You’ve Been Alive.” I’ve seen both sides — pre-collapse and post-collapse. Even though there’s no money, I think it’s better now. The people who were meant to be making music are the people who are making music. I think you can still eke out a living. I think artists need to aggregate so we can negotiate with the Spotifys and Pandoras and get a fair payout. That’s nitpicking. I think there’s still a life to be made in art.

What was the most difficult period?
In the beginning, it’s always difficult and turbulent. What you’re getting back from the world is so small and the sacrifices are so large. [Bassist] Murry [Hammond] and I never had jobs or fallback plans. The other guys had good jobs and quit them. In the early days, there are a million times when the band could have imploded. When we got let go by Elektra our contract ran out and they picked me up to do the solo record. That was a tough time. I told my band mates that I had songs that they would not play. It was driving me crazy and I wanted to make a solo album. They were cool with it but it was tough. Those years in 2001, 2002 and 2003 were the toughest times. It took some finessing and love and support and giving each other space and benefit of the doubt. We emerged from it pretty well.

You earned your reputation as a bar band. How different are things now?
They’re not. I thought about it last night. We were playing at a place in Houston that was undersized. It sold out well in advance and we should have played a bigger venue. John Doe from the band X was a hero of mine. Ten or 12 years ago, I got to pick his brain. He said you don’t want to only be a bar band forever. I thought it was a good point. Selling booze is fine but you don’t want that to be your main thing. I love the idea of making art and bringing something to the world. I’ve always had a certain amount of ambition. Sometimes I worry it’s been too much but I think it’s helped me through the records. It’s hard to keep making records, especially when someone isn’t giving you millions of dollars. You have to believe in it and it takes a real drive. That never stopped at being a bar band.

Do you fit into the alt-country category?
Now it’s something that I have no problem with. Years ago, it felt really reductive and limiting. On our first record, we just got our first four star Rolling Stone review. Our first review in Rolling Stone was written by Grant Alden, one of the editors of No Depression. He’s a nice guy and I’ve kind of forgiven him. But at the time, he took a shit on Too Far to Care. He said the songs were too fast and there was too much electric guitar. He came up with this list of rules. That’s how I felt about the alt-country tag in general. I didn’t care about their rules. I didn’t want to have to follow the guidelines. In addition to Johnny Cash, I also liked Aztec Camera and Belle and Sebastian. Their handbook meant nothing to me. Now, I realize that what we fit right in with what people call alt-country. I love Johnny Cash. I love Willie Nelson. And I love a lot of the bands that we’re lumped in with. I have no problem with it now.

Upcoming Old 97’s 2014 Tour Dates

Kansas City, MO @ Crossroads
St. Louis, MO @ The Ready Room
Bloomington, IL @ The Castle Theatre
Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
Chicago, IL @ Park West Theater
Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Hall
Newport, KY @ The Southgate House Revival
Nashville, TN @ Mercy Lounge
Little Rock, AR @ Stickyz Rock ‘N’ Roll Chicken Shack
Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater
Santa Fe, NM @ Sol Santa Fe
Memphis, TN @ The Levitt Shell
Richmond, VA @ The National
Dewey Beach, DE @ Bottle & Cork
Asbury Park, NJ @ The Stone Pony
Wellfleet, MA @ Wellfleet Beachcomber
Portland, ME @ Port City Music Hall
Camden, NJ @ Xponential Festival



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].