MusicMusic Features

Old 97’s

Watching Old 97’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 he’s a post-40 father of two.

But that reckless abandon—which permeates the band’s musical ethos as deeply as it does its frontman’s antics—is what keeps attracting Old 97’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. They’re also creating some of the best music of their career and still digging the thrill of playing without a net—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 2010’s The Grand Theatre, Volume One) Miller, who’s also done three solo albums, revealed his inspirations and why he’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. “My right hand, my strumming hand, hits the guitar, especially when I do my windmill move,†he says. “It’s pretty gnarly.â€

When the band headlined a New West Records label party at March’s South by Southwest music conference in Austin, he bled all over a brand-new Gibson acoustic. “It adds to the show,†he says, “so I don’t mind.†The fact that bloodshed might occur at an Old 97’s show is oddly appropriate, considering the band named itself after an old country ballad, “Wreck of the Old 97,†which chronicles an epic train wreck, and Volume Two contains the track, “I’m a Trainwreck.†It’s not as bad as it sounds. That one actually was generated by a fan.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Grateful Dead fans are called Deadheads… Jimmy Buffett fans are Parrotheads. What would Old 97’s fans be called?’†Miller says. “I never felt like it was that important, but it was the kind of puzzle that I like. So, I started thinkin’, well, how would we identify ourselves? I guess it’s such an overarching theme in our songs, about these messed-up people living with the decisions they’ve made and laughing about the fact that their life is such a shambles. And so I came up with ‘I’m a Trainwreck.’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 “Perfume,†for example…

“It’s a sequel to ‘The Dance Class’ on Volume One,†Miller explains. “The guy finally gets the girl, but he’s still agoraphobic and he can’t leave his house, and he watches her have fun and he’s miserable.“

Many of Volume Two’s songs were inspired by rain or rain-dampened moods. He wrote “Bright Spark†during a rainy day off while touring with Steve Earle.

“I 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,†Miller says. “And, of course, it all came back to a girl. ‘Here she comes, my girl, a bright spark in this dark world.’â€

The Everly Brothers/Buddy Holly-like “Manhattan (I’m Done)†was born similarly. “I was in Grand Rapids,†Miller says. “It was a very rainy Saturday; it was kind of a depressing day. A lot of my songs, I end up writing when I’m feeling really bummed out.â€

Ironically, the final track is a happy number titled, “You Call It Rain,†written during a family vacation in Playa del Carmen, on a rainy day, of course. “The day I wrote it, I made a little demo,†says Miller, “and my son, Max, was sitting in the room listening to me, because he was stuck in there ’cause it was raining. At the end I repeat [sings], ‘Right now is a pretty good time.’ 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], ‘Right now is a pretty good time.’ It’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. “We’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.)