Speaking via phone from New Orleans, one of many stops on the Old 97's tour in support of their new album Most Messed Up, singer-guitarist Rhett Miller regularly answers questions about the band's incredible 20-year run with anecdotes. The group formed in Dallas in 1993 and it's safe to say that there aren't many bands that formed in 1993 that are still playing. And it's even safer to say that there aren't many bar bands from that time that are still playing today. Along the way, Miller received a key piece of advice from X's John Doe, who told him not to settle for being just another bar band.
"John Doe was a hero of mine," Miller says. "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."
Initially, the band caught the attention of the Chicago-based Bloodshot Records, which issued its 1995 album Wreck Your Life. That album, in turn, caught the attention of Elektra Records, which put out the band's major label debut, 1997's Too Far to Care. At the time, critics were saying the alt-country movement, which included acts such as the Bottle Rockets and Wilco, was the next big thing. Some purists, however, dismissed the Old 97's for being too raucous.
"Our first review in Rolling Stone was written by Grant Alden, one of the editors of [the alt-country magazine] No Depression," says Miller. "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."
The review made Miller question whether the band wanted to be part of the alt-country scene.
"I didn't care about the rules," he says. "In addition to Johnny Cash, I also liked Aztec Camera and Belle and Sebastian. I didn't want to have to follow the guidelines. Their handbook meant nothing to me."
Despite that negative review though, the band became alt-country critics' darlings. But just as the Old 97's' popularity started to solidify, Elektra Records decided it wouldn't renew the band's contract. Instead, it offered to put out a Miller solo album, which led to some tension within the group.
"That was a tough time," Miller admits. "I told my bandmates 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."
That's an understatement. The group's new album is a terrific collection of songs that commences with the self-reflective "Longer Than You've Been Alive," a twangy tune that recounts the band's history. In the song, Miller brags "most of our shows were a triumph of rock."
"I've always been real conscious of writing songs that were too specifically about my own life," he says. "Sometimes, you can do yourself a disservice by grasping toward universality. I love the idea of songs being applicable to everyone who listens to them. That said, sometimes, the most universal sentiments are the most personable 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."
The song also reflects the way in which the mystique that used to surround rock stars has dissipated.
"There was an era when mystique was such a part of rock 'n' roll," says Miller. "Now, you know everything that 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 so great. I love that. 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."
With a terrific new album and an extensive tour to mark its 20th anniversary, the band is getting more attention than it has in the past. Miller doesn't mind the fact that many media outlets are arriving so late to the party.
"I don't know that I feel like anyone has taken us for granted," he says. "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. I've seen both sides — pre-collapse and post-collapse — of the music business. 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, but that's nitpicking. I think there's still a life to be made in art."
The Old 97's with Lydia Loveless
8:30 p.m. Thursday, June 5, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $20 ADV, $22 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.