An alt-country lifer, Rhett Miller has fronted the Old 97’s for 25 years, maintaining an acclaimed solo career along the way. He’s no less busy today than he was during his band’s infancy, with a handful of projects – including an Old 97’s Christmas album, an upcoming solo record and a book of kids’ poetry – all filling a gloriously crowded plate. Miller talks about it all of it during his interview with Walking the Floor‘s Chris Shiflett.
Below are several highlights from today’s episode, which makes its premiere at Rolling Stone Country. Read along, then listen to the podcast.
Miller’s new solo album, The Messenger, is a loose, live-sounding record.
“It was a very fast recording,” says the songwriter, who finished the album’s initial tracking in five days. “It was fast, and it’s really loose, and I really, really love it.” The record – which follows similarly-titled solo efforts like The Interpreter, The Dreamer, and The Traveler – hits stores in October, not long before the Old 97’s unleash their first holiday record.
The Messenger shines some light on Miller’s youth, including a little-known suicide attempt.
“[The album’s title] comes from a bridge in a song called ‘Human Condition,'” he explains. “There were some of these songs where I kind of went back to my 14-year-old self. When I was 14, I had a real serous suicide attempt, and that’s when I started addressing my issues of depression and mental health. It’s not something I’ve talked about until recently, but now that I’ve got kids around that age, I was like, ‘Oh shit, I’ve gotta talk about this, because it’s become over-stigmatized. . .'” I started thinking abut the 14 year-old that was in that space, and I started thinking, ‘If I was to go back and write a letter to myself…’ I wish I could go back to my 14-year-old self and be like, ‘Dude, chill out. It’s going to be ok.'”
At 47 years old, Miller doesn’t worry about the younger musicians who also occupy his genre.
“You and I both function in a world where it’s kind of OK to grow old,” Miller says to Shiflett. “Coming up, I thought, ‘You hit 30 and you gotta turn in your card and go to an old folks’ home.’ But now I look at Willie Nelson, who’s 84. People who make music that’s kinda rootsy. . .there’s an allowance made for us, which is nice.”
Due out later this year, Love the Holidays is the first Christmas-themed Old 97’s release.
“It was pulling teeth to get my band to go along with this idea, just because they’re ornery,” says Miller, who wrote all of the album’s tracks. “It’s nine originals,” he adds. “There’s a few co-writes. One of them is with Kevin Russell, of Shinyribs, formerly with the Gourds. . .The title track for the album is “Love the Holidays,” and that’s the co-write with Kevin Russell, and it’s the album opener.”
With a poem of “subversive kids’ poems” arriving shortly, Rhett Miller is devoting more time to his “second act” as a writer.
“I want so badly to write long-form fiction, like a novel,” he says. “I’ve written a lot of short-form fiction, and I’ve written a lot of essays, book reviews, and memoir-type pieces that I’ve had published in the last few years. But long-form diction is my love – and my first love. I had a full Sarah Lawrence years ago for creative writing, and I abandoned that scholarship, but I’ve always dreamt of that as a second act. I really want to get over the hump of writing a first draft of a novel.”