Watching Old 97â€™s frontman Rhett Miller take a flying leap from a drum riser onto a postage stamp of a stage after windmill-strumming a guitar with such ferocity he bleeds all over it, you have to wonder if the adrenalin of performing makes him forget heâ€™s a post-40 father of two.
But that reckless abandonâ€”which permeates the bandâ€™s musical ethos as deeply as it does its frontmanâ€™s anticsâ€”is what keeps attracting Old 97â€™s fans, 20 years after Miller gave up a Sarah Lawrence College writing scholarship to chase a musical dream with friend Murry Hammond. Ten albums in, lead singer/songwriter Miller, bassist/vocalist Hammond and fellow Dallas natives Ken Bethea (lead guitar) and Philip Peeples (drums) reside among the top ranks of Americana artists. Theyâ€™re also creating some of the best music of their career and still digging the thrill of playing without a netâ€”even if they feel it more the next day.
As he prepared for the release of The Grand Theatre, Volume Two (the follow-up to 2010â€™s The Grand Theatre, Volume One) Miller, whoâ€™s also done three solo albums, revealed his inspirations and why heâ€™s willing to bleed for his art. With children and gulls squawking as he strolls a beach in San Juan Capistrano, Miller says his bloodletting happens when he tears his cuticle. â€œMy right hand, my strumming hand, hits the guitar, especially when I do my windmill move,â€ he says. â€œItâ€™s pretty gnarly.â€
When the band headlined a New West Records label party at Marchâ€™s South by Southwest music conference in Austin, he bled all over a brand-new Gibson acoustic. â€œIt adds to the show,â€ he says, â€œso I donâ€™t mind.â€ The fact that bloodshed might occur at an Old 97â€™s show is oddly appropriate, considering the band named itself after an old country ballad, â€œWreck of the Old 97,â€ which chronicles an epic train wreck, and Volume Two contains the track, â€œIâ€™m a Trainwreck.â€ Itâ€™s not as bad as it sounds. That one actually was generated by a fan.
â€œSomebody said to me, â€˜Grateful Dead fans are called Deadheadsâ€¦ Jimmy Buffett fans are Parrotheads. What would Old 97â€™s fans be called?â€™â€ Miller says. â€œI never felt like it was that important, but it was the kind of puzzle that I like. So, I started thinkinâ€™, well, how would we identify ourselves? I guess itâ€™s such an overarching theme in our songs, about these messed-up people living with the decisions theyâ€™ve made and laughing about the fact that their life is such a shambles. And so I came up with â€˜Iâ€™m a Trainwreck.â€™â€
Miller actually seems like a guy who can toss off misfortune easily, who maintains a sunny outlook. (His daughter is named Soleil, French for sun.) But his songs, though laden with hummable pop hooks, danceable beats and updated takes on twangy traditions, often contain dark undercurrents. Some resemble film-noir vignettes or short stories (he is, after all, a frustrated fiction writer). Take â€œPerfume,â€ for example…
â€œItâ€™s a sequel to â€˜The Dance Classâ€™ on Volume One,â€ Miller explains. â€œThe guy finally gets the girl, but heâ€™s still agoraphobic and he canâ€™t leave his house, and he watches her have fun and heâ€™s miserable.â€œ
Many of Volume Twoâ€™s songs were inspired by rain or rain-dampened moods. He wrote â€œBright Sparkâ€ during a rainy day off while touring with Steve Earle.
â€œI was just walking around in this rainy factory town in northern England, imagining being a young man there and trying to figure out what would make it not be a depressing place to live,â€ Miller says. â€œAnd, of course, it all came back to a girl. â€˜Here she comes, my girl, a bright spark in this dark world.â€™â€
The Everly Brothers/Buddy Holly-like â€œManhattan (Iâ€™m Done)â€ was born similarly. â€œI was in Grand Rapids,â€ Miller says. â€œIt was a very rainy Saturday; it was kind of a depressing day. A lot of my songs, I end up writing when Iâ€™m feeling really bummed out.â€
Ironically, the final track is a happy number titled, â€œYou Call It Rain,â€ written during a family vacation in Playa del Carmen, on a rainy day, of course. â€œThe day I wrote it, I made a little demo,â€ says Miller, â€œand my son, Max, was sitting in the room listening to me, because he was stuck in there â€™cause it was raining. At the end I repeat [sings], â€˜Right now is a pretty good time.â€™ I looked at Max the last time and pointed at him, and he sang the last repeat of the chorus line. So, the very last line is just a little boy saying [sings], â€˜Right now is a pretty good time.â€™ Itâ€™s very sweet.â€
Life in general is sweet for the band right now. Their recent tours have been the best of their career, Miller says, with bigger audiences and glowing reviews. â€œWeâ€™re starting to get talked about in terms of being some sort of forefathers. Not exactly legendary, but moving toward that place. I love it.â€
WHO: Old 97’s, Rhett Miller, The O’s
WHERE: 40 Watt Club
WHEN: Saturday, Jan. 21, 8 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $16 (adv.)
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