In this episode, host RJ Bee talks to Rhett about the reality of life as a musician, from his upbringing in Dallas to forming the Old 97s during the heyday of grunge, and how the meaning of success has changed over the years. Rhett tells RJ about balancing the band and his solo career, his writing ambitions, and what’s inspiring him as he looks ahead.
The show closes with Rhett performing three songs live from his home studio: “Lonely Holiday,” “The Human Condition,” and “The MTA,” by The Kingston Trio. You can see videos of these and all Past Present Future Live! exclusive performances on the Osiris Media YouTube channel.
You’ll find original versions of these tracks, as well as other songs and artists mentioned in this episode, on the Past Present Future Live! Spotify playlist (which you can play below).
Past, Present, Future, Live! is brought to you by Osiris Media. Hosted and Produced by RJ Bee. Executive Producers are Adam Caplan and Kirsten Cluthe. Production, Editing, Mixing and original theme music by Brad Stratton. Art by Liz Bee Design. To discover more podcasts that help you connect more deeply with the music you love, check out osirispod.com.
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Past Present Future Live! Episode 2: Rhett Miller – edited transcript
Rhett Miller is best known as the frontman of the Dallas based alt country band, the Old97s.
He’s also a critically acclaimed solo artist. In the 27-year span of his career, he’s released over 11 albums with the Old 97s and eighth solo albums, and he’s toured relentlessly. He’s a prolific writer and observer of creativity. In 2019, he published a children’s book and launched a podcast called “Wheels Off”.
He joined us from his home office in upstate New York, which is also the place where he’s been performing weekly live shows on StageIt during the COVID lockdown.
RJ Let’s go back to the beginning. What’s your first musical memory?
Rhett I remember being in a bathtub singing The Beatles song “Nowhere Man”. And I remember in the middle of it – but this is also, I think, because it’s one of those memories that’s been reinforced by my mom bringing it up a few times — I remember asking her after I finished singing the song, “Is that song about Dad?” Freud would love that.
RJ Was there a lot of music playing around the house when you were a kid?
Rhett My mom was a giant music fan and she loved to sing so she would disappear to sing in the choir at church, or I would be sitting in the church watching her sing in the choir. I started singing in the church choir as well. My dad was a big music fan, too. He was more of a lyrics guy, where for him it was a lot of, you know, folk music. Arlo Guthrie. And he really loved this 1950’s mathematics professor turned novelty’s singer, Tom Lehrer. So there was a lot of music around the house and it was kind of a nice combo, I think, because my mom really loved melody and my dad really loved the lyrics. So between the two of them, I kind of had both sides of the musical equation growing up.
RJ Do you remember the first album that really spoke to you or an album that you fell in love with and couldn’t stop listening to?
Rhett When I was eight years old, my parents took me to see the Kingston Trio at a dinner theater in Dallas. I think it was called Mama’s Dinner Theater or something. And the Kingston Trio by then were – this is 1978 – at that point, they were already a nostalgia act. They’d been around for over a decade. So it was pretty cool getting to see this musical act that I heard via my parents record player so many times. And I remember going home after that and by myself for the first time, putting a record on. So I was taking charge of my musical experience after having seen them in person. But I do definitely remember during that show having a moment where it occurred to me that they were human beings, they were just like me. They were just like my parents. It was a later show when my parents, like a year or so later, we went in and saw them again, and my parents, who were not like hippies or, you know, backstage-type people, invited the Kingston Trio to come over after the show and have dinner at our house. And they did! Which is insane, because my dad’s a lawyer and my mom – you know, they just were just kind of square in a way. I mean, no, no offense if they’re listening – but, the Kingston Trio, I guess, were also a little square. But they came over and they hung out. I think they might have even gone to play racquetball with my dad. But having the Kingston Trio in my house definitely drove home the idea that they were just guys, you know? They were just people. That was something that would become a theme as I was finding myself drawn to the business of or the calling of music. I kept seeing these people, that in my mind to begin with, I would think that they were on another plane in another world. They must know some secret that I don’t have access to. But, I would watch them do something that would humanize them to the point where I would realize, oh, they’re just doing a job and I want to do that job.
RJ Was there other music that was interesting to you along the lines of Kingston Trio? Where did that open doors for you musically?
Rhett There was a lot of music around. And like a lot of kids in the 70s, you know, the echo of the Beatles was so strong that it kind of overtook everything else. “Rubber Soul” was giant in my house and then in my life. And again, I think like a lot of kids my age, The Beatles were something that started with my parents and became mine pretty quickly. I took them over and I felt like I understood them on a level my parents could never possibly understand. The things that I was drawn to after that, a lot of times it had to do with the way they grew out of the Beatles, like The Kinks and even David Bowie. You know, I really loved the British-ness of Bowie because as much as he was like a child of the universe, he was very British. And he had that weird accent that wasn’t Cockney and it wasn’t posh. But it was a kind of British that felt to me like maybe the version of the Texas accent that my dad had. I’m a seventh generation Texan, and by all rights, I should have a drawl. SO, whatever that was, Bowie’s British dialect felt to me like the UK version of whatever the Texas thing was that I was trying desperately to escape.
RJ I want to talk about the escape aspect, as I know you had like some struggles in your childhood and in your teenage years. You had an illness when you were a kid. And you’ve talked about dealing with bullying when you were a teenager. It seems like some of this music was an escape for you.
Rhett Yes, music was a thing that got me bullied initially, like in grade school. I always wanted to do the solo. I always wanted to be in the school play and the school concert. And I did. I remember doing the solo in second grade. After that, they would call me ‘opera singer’ and I’d get kind of bullied or beat up a few times. I kept thinking, you’re calling me ‘opera singer’, you guys. I don’t think you realize that’s a compliment. You’re basically saying that I sing well and because I like singing and hope to sing well, you’re just kind of complimenting me and then acting like it’s something of which I should be ashamed. And I refuse to be ashamed. So, yeah, it was a thing that got me beat up. But at the same time, I never felt bad about it. I never bought what they were trying to convince me of, which was that the thing that I loved was something that was shameful or embarrassing. I knew that this thing was magical and it was going to take me places that they could never even dream of going. I felt a lot more in tune with the universe, with people around me because music is so driven by empathy and being in tune. Literally, in tune with the world. It gives you access to things on a deeper level than if you’re just trying to profit off of the world.
RJ You mentioned the magical aspect of music. It’s funny because that’s the way I would describe David Bowie. Were there other artists who represented this kind of magical escape?
Rhett I felt like every artist that I listened to, whether it was Aztec Camera, which was a Scottish band fronted by a young guitar prodigy, Roddy Frame. They just seemed like aliens. But then there was ZZ Top who, you know, the first record I bought was Degüello. I bought it at the grocery store. You know, all these people, they just seemed like they were doing something that’s so weird and magical. At the same time, I really loved getting to watch each of them long enough to figure out that what they were doing wasn’t magic. Or maybe it wasn’t. I’m now friends with some magicians. What they do is not, you know, spoiler alert: actual magic, like Harry Potter magic. You know, they’re doing sleight of hand and tricks and it’s all about practice and it’s all about repetition and it’s all about expertise in one’s field. And so when I watched these musicians long enough after doing it enough myself, it all just slotted into place so clearly that this was magic. But it was the kind of magic you could actually learn how to do and get better at.
RJ That’s a really good analogy, because musical success is built on repetition and practice and becoming an expert. Do you remember when you picked up a guitar and started learning and playing, and coming up with your own songs for the first time?
Rhett My brother is a more natural musician than I am. He was a self-taught pianist, self-taught guitar, bass, violin. Recently, he decided he wanted to learn to play violin. He just went and taught himself. And so I watched him and he was a couple of years younger than me. I watched him so easily doing these things that at the time felt to me like they were the province of somebody who’d been anointed by the gods or something. And here’s my little brother doing it without even taking lessons. And so I thought, OK, I can do this, too. I ‘d gotten a Yamaha acoustic guitar, and at 12 years old, I tried really hard to learn how to play it and it hurt my fingers so badly. And like a lot of kids at 12 years old, I gave up after just a couple of months and I threw in the towel. And then I started thinking after I’d quit, I started thinking about songs. And just a little bit, I knew how songs were written, the verses. And so I started thinking about the building blocks of the songs and then I started thinking, in the verse, they’re kind of telling like this little story and it’s always different. But then in the chorus, it’s kind of always the same thing. And then the next thing I know, I’m thinking I’m going to have to learn how to play guitar so that I can write the song that I’m thinking about. So at 13, I went back and I got over like the tricky part of my fingertips hurting. And once I’d gotten past that, there was no looking. Back, because at that point, I was like, OK, now I’m writing songs and I was writing song after song after song.
And they were so bad, like the first songs I wrote were laughably bad. But I mean, I think that’s part of it. You got to write them and just get them out of your system. And that way you can look back at them and think, OK, first of all, me writing songs about Charles Manson, which was like my first song I wrote, was a song about Charles Manson – that was so stupid. And then, that doesn’t feel natural to me. For me, it would be more natural to write songs about, like my interactions between people and how awkward it is to talk to other people and to be in a relationship. So then I started finding what I later would realize was my voice. Not just my singing voice, which actually I felt like that took me a much longer time to figure out my actual singing voice. But, my voice as a writer. That was really fun to realize – oh, I have one. And I can make it better by using it.
RJ You became a writer and a musician, both. Did you discover writing as a pursuit alongside music first?
Rhett Just now, I’m realizing that music came really early to me. And writing, as I got deeper and deeper into becoming a lover of fiction and proper literature. Writing to me felt like something that I was really drawn to. But in those early years, they felt like they were competing. And it wasn’t until well into adulthood that I realized that I had found a job that flexed both of those muscles and used both of those disciplines. But at the time, you know, like I was doing music maybe three nights a week. I was going down to Deep Ellum, the dangerous downtown rock and roll area. And I was playing folk music, opening for punk rock bands most of the time and hanging out and watching shows and making friends with all the local musicians. But then in school, I was also really falling in love with fiction as a reader and a writer. And so when I was coming to the end of my high school career, I had released an album and it had gotten a good review in Billboard magazine and this seemed like something that was really calling me. But at the same time, I had gotten full scholarships to Bennington College and Sarah Lawrence, which are the two best creative writing schools in the country. And so, it seemed like a battle between these two vocations – either I’m going to go to college and I’m going to study writing and I’m going to be an intellectual and I’m going to write fiction and that’s going to be my life; or, I’m going to drop out and I’m going to be a musician and I’m going to, you know, party down and have fun. And then probably when I turn 30, I won’t be able to do that anymore because old people don’t do rock and roll. And that was what I chose, thinking that I was completely turning my back on the side that would involve a love of language. And, the subtlety of, being a writer who used the English language to convey the human experience. But as I got into my career, I realized, oh, my God, what I’m doing is really using the creative writing muscles that I thought I had put on the backburner and shelved until my golden years… to make myself write the kind of songs that I really wanted to hear, which ideally would be songs that were a little more complicated, that had some subtext to them. They really wrestled with more complex relationships between people and used the kind of words that felt juicy and evocative to me, like I would as a proper writer.
RJ And you did end up leaving college. You went to Sarah Lawrence, studied creative writing, and then you left to go play rock and roll in New York.
Rhett Sarah Lawrence was in New York. And so I would go to gigs at CBGBs while I was there. And then when I dropped out, I moved back to Dallas. Murry and I, my bass player in the Old 97s started a band called Sleepy Heroes in the wake of my dropping out. My parents were so mad. I mean, imagine a full scholarship to the most expensive school in the country. And we didn’t we didn’t have a lot of money. They didn’t have money for me to go to college, and then I’d just turned my back on it after one semester. And now looking back, I’m like, I can’t believe I did that. How did they not murder me? So I moved back to Dallas and was really a part of the Dallas music scene until the late 90’s when the Old97s were really taking off. Then I fell in love with a girl who lived in L.A., and I moved there.
RJ You were quoted in another interview as saying, “When Nirvana broke, Murry and I just looked at each other and said, we can’t do this anymore. They just did it so well. Nirvana made us stop playing music for six months.” Can you expand a little bit on what that mid 90s grunge movement did for your own music?
Rhett That was a weird time in music, because the 80’s were either hair metal, which was making money, or punk rock, which wasn’t making anybody money but was super fun. And then what I was doing wasn’t either of them. It was like this kind of post-folk music. I remember going to see The Smiths on my 16th birthday and they had an opening act who was a self-described Jewish Lesbian folk singer. Frank, with a P-H and a hard C is how she would always describe herself. Phranc got out there by herself with an acoustic guitar opening for The Smiths at the Bronco Bowl in Dallas and slayed the crowd. It was so great. She played The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, a Bob Dylan song. And like to me, it was this transformative moment because I was trying to figure out. what to do. And here she came out and did it in front of a rock and roll audience by herself. It was so great. That kind of gave me permission to do what I was doing. But then in the early 90s, it got harder and harder to do it. And I was also coming off of having put out a record in high school that got good reviews from Billboard magazine and pinpointed me as somebody to watch. And, you know, that was heady stuff because at the time the CD boom had given the music industry so much money. There was just so much cash. It was like a gold rush in the early 90s because all of the old catalogs, The Eagles catalog and every artist that had, you know, five or six records that they could then turn around and resell on CD format. So Murry and I were trying to put together these bands that would get signed and make a ton of money. And that is never a good place to come from.
When Murry and I were making these bands in the early 90s, we were doing music we liked and we were still trying to make good music. But it was never far from the front of our mind that we could do what The Buck Pets did, a local band that got signed. The brass ring was within our reach. I do think that it kept us from being as true to ourselves as we could have been. And so, when the grunge explosion happened in ‘92, ‘93, the two or three years we had spent kind of floundering, kind of trying to be somebody we weren’t at all, suddenly became very clear that we were doing something that was kind of based in this fraudulent pursuit of this kind of cool that wasn’t who we were. You know, I didn’t know how to make a good, distorted guitar sound, and I was only doing it because it seemed like what you were supposed to do in 1992. Murry and I were living in this scuzzy apartment together and we just looked at each other, and we went, this has passed us by. This thing that we’re trying to be a part of kept going and we got left behind, and it doesn’t feel good anymore. So we bailed out. We stopped. At that point, we had moved on from sleepy heroes with all these bands, and they were like forgettable bands… Rhett’s Exploding, Rhett Miller’s Third Eye. Just band after band after band, trying to be something we weren’t. So, we took six months off, then Murry came to me and went, “What if we do a band where it was just like acoustic guitars? I’ll play acoustic bass, it’ll be coffeehouse music. We will not stand a chance of being signed, and it’ll take all the pressure off of us and we can do something that we like.” He’d been really getting into these country music box sets and you know, Carter Family and Grandpa Jones. And I’d really gotten into Hank senior. The purity of Hank Williams senior to me was so unimpeachable. So I thought, yeah, let’s let’s do this. It’ll be fun. We won’t have to worry about getting rich. And ironically, of course, that was the thing that worked finally.
RJ Obviously, the moral is you follow your passion and don’t try to do things because you think they’re going to be successful or for monetary gain. But you end up revolutionizing this new genre, which I think now is just alt-country. Did you try to create a new sound or was it just influenced by this music you’d been listening to?
Rhett We never had a discussion like, oh, we’re going to start a new genre. I think we were painfully aware that what we were doing was so uncool. But I think that really made us feel all the more validated because Murry came from the world of punk rock. Murry would publish punk rock fanzines and when the Dead Kennedys would come through Dallas, they’d sleep on Murry’s floor. So for Murry, the idea of doing something that was patently uncool was perfect for him. And, for me, it took a little while because I’d always come from a place of being such a people pleaser. I almost felt like I was always chasing what was cool, which is never a good place to be in because if you’re chasing something, you’re by definition behind. When we made the choice to give up on trying to get rich and trying to be cool and be en vogue, when we decided that we would just do the thing that felt natural, that was such a load off of me. It was so much pressure off my shoulders. It was almost that feeling of now we’ve lost, so we can kind of start over again like we had given up. But it very quickly went from feeling like we’d given up to feeling like, well now we’re back to the place where we feel comfortable. We were like the underdogs. And so I guess if we ever felt like we were inventing something, it was kind of like a middle finger to the thing that made us feel so excluded.. the kind of cooler-than-thou grunge movement where, if you didn’t have your bona fides in order, you were not invited into the cool club. And we just felt like, you know what? Let’s start our own club.
RJ And it worked. You guys really broke out in ‘95, but made a ton of records in the 90s. And at some point during that time, you moved to L.A., as you mentioned earlier, and sort of became part of that scene. What was that transition like for you going to a new city in the middle of a successful run?
Rhett When I moved to Los Angeles, it was in the wake of the Old 97s having been courted and wined and dined by 15 major labels, eventually signing to Elektra Records and making our first super expensive record. When that record was finally coming out, during the kind of press push for that, I was staying at the world famous Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Rock n Roll Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. A girl that I’d known, who had been a couple of years ahead of me at the sister school to my all boys high school, I’d always had a crush on her. She was older and cooler than I was, you know, when we were in school. And then years later, there she was. And she was an indie film producer. And she and I, you know, reconnected and fell in love. And so I followed her out to Los Angeles. And I guess it felt really natural because I’d spent so much time in L.A. during the wining and dining, and in New York City. So, I suddenly felt less like a citizen of Lower East Dallas, the hard streets that I had spent so many years living in squalor on. It felt natural to step up and go to a big city. And, my A&R guy Tom DeSavia, who I’m still really, really close to all these years later, Tom lived in L.A. and it just felt like the right next step. I don’t think I ever had it in my brain, like I’m going to move to L.A. and it never felt like it was a step towards getting famous. But I did want to feel like I was closer to where people were making bigger, more legitimate art because when you’re in a city long enough like Dallas, and especially if you become the band in Dallas that’s the most popular band, you get sniped at. People can throw rocks at you up there. We were lucky. People in Dallas were always very, very good to us. But at a certain point, I did kind of feel like, all right, it’s time to move on. And it was perfect because in L.A. at that time, there were a lot of young artists who were just really starting to do interesting work. There was a club called Largo that I fell in with there. There were a bunch of actors and comedians that I was able to make friends with, many of whom have gone on to be really successful and make really interesting, brilliant things. And so it wasn’t so much about I’m going to position myself in a place where I can cash in and be a star. It was more like, oh, my God, this is so exciting being around all these people who are all around my same age, doing interesting stuff.
RJ I’m curious about some of the people you looked up to or learned from during that period of time because so many people came through there.
Rhett The Largo scene had a lot of levels to it. Flanagan, who owns and runs and hosts and is the longtime face of Largo, has always done a great job of sort of curating the community. So there would be established people like Colin Hay from Men At Work, Aimee Mann and even bigger stars who would sort of roll through. Even to this day, he’s really got his pulse on who the up and comers are. At the time, there were a lot of comedians and actors, and that was really great to be around. But of course, for me, it was most inspiring to be around the musicians and Jon Brion, who was sort of the main man of Largo. He would play every Friday night. He would jump up with those of us who were the regular headliners at Largo, and play with us. That crew at the time was just so incredible. Fiona Apple, who was well, I mean – I was actually about to say that Fiona was at the peak of her output, although now she just put out a new record and it’s arguable that she’s right back at her peak. But Fiona Apple was just so incredible because she is she had survived being what might have been sort of a one hit or one album wonder and gone on to make these really challenging, brilliant records with John Brion a lot of times. And then Elliott Smith, who had kind of risen up out of the sort of punk rock, weird indie rock world and become this unlikely hero of kind of the pop rock thing that we all loved so much. One thing that was so inspiring to me, although at times dismaying, was to see how eaten up with insecurity these folks were like Elliott, most of all. But. also Fiona. I remember early on in my days at Largo, I did a four person song swap for charity, and it was John Brion and me and Fiona and Elliott. And we were about to go on stage and we were in a little attic room, which was the backstage at Largo. And John and I were just laughing and goofing around. And, you know, I was nobody at that point. Not that I’m anybody now, but back then I was really nobody. Fiona had big hits, and Elliott, who had just been on the Oscars, they were on the couch next to us and they were both just so nervous. And Elliott kept saying, “I can’t even believe I’m going to have to go out there and be next to you guys. And they’re going to hate me.”
And I’m like looking at them going, you guys are literally the most brilliant singers and songwriters I’ve ever been around. What are you doing? It’s always stuck with me. The idea that you don’t know who you are. It’s like in No Exit, the Sartre play where these people are trapped in hell. And one of the things that drives them crazy is there’s no mirror. It’s like there’s no way to know who you are. There’s no way for Fiona and Elliot in that dressing room to see what Jon Brion and I saw looking at them like, ‘You guys have it, whatever it is’. I don’t know. It’s something that I’ve always remembered whenever I find myself beating myself up or telling myself that I don’t belong with these people or I don’t belong on the stage. I just remind myself that they thought the same thing about themselves on that night when no one could have belonged more than they did.
RJ That seems similar to your observation from earlier about the Kingston Trio, when you realized that they were just people. How has that realization evolved to inform your songwriting and your approach to music?
Rhett One thing that’s always bothered me about the music world is that people are sold this idea that musicians are godlike or superhuman. And I think it prevents kids from believing that they can go out and do it, too. It lets people who are beloved musicians or artists get away with a lot of terrible things. Terrible, you know, behavior. It’s always bothered me. Mick Jagger is a human being. He has to eat food to keep surviving. He has to, you know, go to the bathroom, whatever, all these things. And granted, I’m sure his life is not as normal as most people’s lives are, he has a nicer bathroom. But Mick Jagger and every artist that you love is still just a human being. So that said, when I am writing something and I get nervous that the thing I’m writing reveals too much of my own humanity, I remind myself that one of my goals as an artist is to be human. I want people to know that if they relate to something in my song, it’s because I’m a person, too. And we are all going through some version of the same thing. And if I’m talking about going through something that feels terrible, that it’s like a version of what they’re going through. I don’t know if I’m saying it the right way. I think that what I learned when I looked at the struggling artists around me who were dealing with insecurity and self-hatred, and all these things that we torture ourselves with, is that I’ve really wanted to let my art be human and flawed, and be a window into just another human being’s soul. Not act like I’m better than the listener or I’m untouchable, or that my life is perfect. And so if your life isn’t [perfect], you should feel bad about it.
RJ You moved several times to L.A. and then to New York. It seems like that sense of place might have influenced your approach to songwriting. Can you talk about that?
Rhett When I moved to L.A., it was very much when my life went from being a life of squalor in South Dallas to being a life of relative comfort and living in cool places and going to cool places. It was like my whole life took a step up. I think that manifested itself in my songwriting. I’m not exactly sure how it did, but I felt a change. I went from being defiant perhaps to feeling like I could address a lot more issues, maybe dig deeper internally. And then when I moved to New York, I had been in a band that had succeeded. We’d never had a hit like our label mates Third Eye Blind. It had hit us while we were on the same label, but we had done everything that we’d ever really wanted to do. We’d gotten as big as X or at the time, The Pixies, you know, whatever. We’d gotten as big as our favorite band. So even though I know within the upper levels of the Time Warner building, there were people that felt like we weren’t succeeding, in our minds we had succeeded. By the time I moved to New York, it coincided with our third record on Elektra and my band having agreed to let me do a solo record, which was not without a lot of drama and fear and growing pains. That move to New York, which also coincided with me meeting and falling in love with the woman to whom I’m celebrating my 18th anniversary this month, was like a geographical marker; but at the same time, it coincided with my shifting into this sort of new latter day version of myself, where now I’m going to be in a relationship and married and have kids. So all of those things, the geography, I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg. I don’t know if living in New York made me write songs like “Hover” or the kind of songs that appeared on The Instigator, or if it was that I was finally getting to make a solo record and I was finally falling in love… and moving to New York was just something that happened, kind of as part of that larger life shift. I find that when I try to think about my songs too much after the fact, what do they mean? And put them in boxes and explicate the lyrics, I get confused. I can’t really do it. My mom does a great job of telling me what my songs are about, but if it’s up to me, I just start talking and the next thing I know, I’m lost.
RJ It’s understandable. And it should be up to the listener anyway. So your mom probably has the perspective there. I think through your most recent record, The Messenger, there is a lot of evolution. Have you tried to push yourself in different directions over the years?
Rhett The difference between the solo records and the Old 97s is probably twofold. The main thing is that the songs on the solo record, especially initially- now, every once in a while I’ll write one specifically for a solo thing – but, mostly, those songs are songs that I’ve presented to the Old 97s and they have rejected. That’s why I wanted to make solo records to begin with, because I had all these songs that I really thought were great and believed in. But the band was just, you know, throwing them away and they were starting to really stack up. After we made Satellite Rides, I asked if I could go make a solo record and that became The Instigator. So those were songs that the band wasn’t interested in. What that means is that they don’t sound like the kind of songs the band would do. And especially on the early solo records, I really wanted the sound of the albums to live in a world where the Old 97s didn’t live. I wanted it to be really clear to our fans, because I know this from being a fan of artists and watching the singer go make solo records, you’re mad because then the band is broken up and it’s an either or. It becomes a very contentious thing.
I wanted our fans to know that these records are going to be very different from the Old 97s records. So, Rhett Miller solo records are going to be kind of more poppy and weird and experimental. And the Old 97s records are going to be a four piece rock band with a swingy drummer, and a lot of high harmony “ooohs” and a twangy Telecaster. I wanted it to be obvious why I had to make solo records to begin with. Funny thing that’s happened is the Old 97s have wanted to be more of a garage band and they’ve wanted to do a thing that’s kind of more rock than twang. And that opened up some space in my solo stuff to make sounds that were more like what the old Old 97s kind of was. Especially on The Traveler, I was able to use fiddles and kind of like, more swingy songs. So I was able to do things that originally had felt like Old 97s territory and I had to really steer clear of that. And now I can do more of that on my solo records. Now, I just don’t think about it as much, because now I don’t think that our fans are as hung up on trying to figure out if I should be or if the solo records are something they should be upset about. It seems like now everybody is pretty cool with it, so I don’t worry about it as much as I used to.
RJ That’s interesting to know because you’re still making solo records and you’re still making Old97s records. It must take some amount of trust to have that open relationship with your bandmates. It must be a pretty strong relationship for that to occur.
Rhett Being in a band for twenty seven years is so unlikely, you know? Especially if you never have the kind of massive hit where you’re locked into the band and think, well, jeez, if I don’t do this, there’s an entire industry of people that are going to be without a job. It’s been a good job and we’ve been pretty lucky. I’m in a home right now that I pay for with the Old 97s career. But it’s very much like a marriage or long relationship where there are years that have been less fun than other years. And then there are some years and some experiences where you just can’t even believe how great it is. We’re just coming off of a recording experience, making this newest record we just finished, where none of us expected it to be as much fun as it was, because every time you go in, there’s trepidation, there’s fear, there’s nerves. When we went in, we made a record that felt so good and it was so much fun to make, and it sounded different than anything we’d done before. It sounded different than what we expected it to sound like.
I’m always interested to see which songs the band will gravitate towards and latch on to. I did not expect them to pick the songs they picked out. I mean, I brought them as usual 25, 30 songs. And the 12 that they picked are not at all the ones I would have thought. It’s so cool. The results are so spread out over so many years that it’s really cool to see what we can still do. Even if the fan base doesn’t like something or even if something doesn’t click in the way it should, every time you make something new, you think maybe this will be the thing? I don’t know what it would mean for it to take a step to the next level. Maybe that would mean that Paul Thomas Anderson decides to use a suite of songs from our new album as the soundtrack to his brilliant Oscar-winning film. Or does it just mean that Subaru uses one of our songs in their commercial. Who knows. We keep thinking that at one point one of these records might bump us up a tax bracket. So far, that hasn’t happened. But the cool thing is that we’ve never made the kind of record that felt like we were phoning it in and we’ve never made the kind of record that felt like we were trying to do some sort of cheesy cash grab.
RJ I want to ask about what you’re up to now and talk a little bit about the future. In addition to making all these albums, you wrote a children’s book, No More Poems! A Book in Verse That Just Gets Worse. And you launched a podcast called Wheels Off. How do you balance all that stuff at this point with a family?
Rhett I have never wanted for ambition, but not the kind of icy ambition that would have had me sort of doing market research on which haircut would sell more records or whatever. I just have that kind of ambition where I’m always beating myself up, that I’ve never finished a novel… beating myself up that I haven’t done more. And I’ve gotten better about the beating myself up part over the years. But I still do like doing a lot. The book of children’s poems, I guess I wrote it a couple of years before that. Having that book of children’s poems come out last year felt great because it felt like I had had a crazy idea. I had put a lot of hours into trying to make it come together and then I’d seen it through to fruition, to the point where I was able to get such a great illustrator, a Caldecott Medal winning illustrator, Dan Santat, who made the book this really beautiful thing. You know, even though there was some drama during the release of the book- some moms decided I was a monster because in one of the poems, they thought I was inciting kids to violence or whatever. It still was able to come out, find a lot of love with families and librarians. And I won a couple of big awards at the end of the year. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it made my mom happy.
I’ve always dreamt of writing a novel. That’s one of those things. I’m not even sure why I want to, except that it’s always been a dream. Maybe I need to know why I want to before I can actually finish it. When the pandemic started and we entered into lockdown in our house I thought, ‘oh, this is it. This is finally my chance.’ And I really did put a few weeks of work in. But it turns out the kind of anxiety that something like this brings about is not conducive to making you want to wake up early and work on a novel. I’m just now trying to figure out how to get people to show up at my online gigs. I do love to work. I do love to create. Doing the Wheels Off podcast has been so inspiring to me. I’ve been lucky that I’ve got a couple of great producers, Kirsten and Nick, and they work super hard. Nobody’s ever made one penny off of my podcast. But I get so much inspiration out of the conversations that I have, because every single time I spend 30 minutes talking to somebody, there is at least one thing that gets said by my guest that I go back to and think about time and again and helps me be a better artist. There was something I said when I recorded the outro to the podcast when we very first started it two years ago… I didn’t write a script, I just kind of said, ‘Thanks so much for listening. Like and subscribe’ – whatever dumb stuff you’re supposed to say – but then at the end of it, I just tossed off a thing without really thinking. I said ‘create every day’. That’s something that now has started to resonate with me because it’s become like a personal mantra. I didn’t really realize that that was what I was thinking as far as self motivation. But I think that is something that I’ve always thought about. Every day I want to do something creative. I want to make something every day because I think that in my darkest times as a young man who wanted desperately to die because there was no reason for us to be on this planet – the thing that I found that made me feel like there was a reason to wake up and to go on was the idea that I could make something – something that, whether it was technically beautiful or not, was making the world a better place because it was adding something new to it. And that in itself was its own sort of beauty, and that in itself was its own sort of meaning. So, that’s what drives me every day. I want to create something every day because I think that that not only makes the world a better place incrementally perhaps, but is the thing that gives me a reason to keep waking up.
Getting older is weird. You know, I’ve never felt old. I was always the youngest in the scene. Like in Dallas, in Deep Ellum, it was always teen folkie Rhett Miller opening for Lords of the New Church, Teen Prodigy. I was always in bands with older people. My bandmates in the Old 97s are all older than I am, and I’ve always felt like the kid. Now I’ll turn 50 this year, and as much as I feel like the kid, you can’t argue that a 50 year old is a kid, you know? I might be immature, but I’m not a kid.
I mean, it’s something that I have to actively try to make peace with – the idea that I’m not a dinosaur or a relic, or that the art that I might make is still necessary. Not just to me, but to the world. So when I feel bad about my own aging, inevitable aging, I remember the artists that I admire. I mean, Willie Nelson is great. People point at the Rolling Stones and I think that’s fine, but they’re just such an outlier that that’s not a business model we can really aspire to. But I think Willie Nelson is the kind of business model that I can aspire to. You work hard, you write songs throughout your career, you go out and you do gigs. The stories I’ve heard about Willie and the times I’ve interacted with him, my experience has been so positive. And he is a really positive guy. Grateful, good to his musicians, good to his crew. You know, that’s a business model I can get behind. And he’s only gotten better. I don’t think he’s an outlier. I think that he is, maybe at the peak of that example of that model. But there’s a lot of us out there, just fighting the good fight and trying to wake up and work hard every day, and try and make something good, try and make something that will be useful to people, and try and make something that will make the world a more beautiful place. I really love my job. I feel so grateful that I’ve gotten to do it, and I really want more than anything to earn the right to keep doing it tomorrow and next year.
Live performance YouTube
The Human Condition
The M.T.A by the Kingston Trio
Past, Present, Future, Live! is hosted and produced by RJ Bee. Executive producers are Adam Kaplan and Kirsten Cluthe. Production, editing, mixing and original theme music by Brad Stratton. This podcast is presented by Osiris Media.