Rhett Miller is an expert storyteller. It’s a skill that came in handy during the singer-songwriter’s solo set onboard the Outlaw Country Cruise when he broke two guitar strings over the course of three songs on Tuesday night. To keep the crowd engaged while absent-mindedly changing strings, he ping-ponged between telling jokes (sample punchline: “no, that’s just the ice cream sandwich”) and recalling run-ins with Waylon Jennings and a flirtatious Dolly Parton, who told him, “If we was to kiss, our moles would be kissing.”
Now the Old 97’s frontman is aiming to share his gift of gab with a wider audience with the launch of the new podcast Wheels Off. Taking its title from a track off the 97’s album Most Messed Up, the series finds Miller plumbing the depths of creativity with a varied list of guests: Rosanne Cash, Fred Armisen and Rob Thomas all appear in the first three episodes.
It’s a superb listen, with Miller proving just as gregarious of a host behind the mic as he is onstage, as well as an eager student. At 48, he’s still inspired to learn and forever hustling — when Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood arrives backstage after Miller’s set, he extends an offer to be a guest on Wheels Off, and is scouring the ship to interview Margo Price. “I’m a glutton for punishment,” says Miller, who released his solo album The Messenger in November and will publish a book of children’s poems in March.
You’ve been interviewed countless times yourself. How do you approach your role as host?
I think there’s something magical about the kind of conversation that really feels genuine. I wanted to have the kind of conversation I’d just have backstage with Rosanne Cash or Fred Armisen, and talk about the things that excite us and are useful to each other. I’ve learned so much over the years picking the brains of my heroes. Even John Doe, who is now a good friend, there was a time when I was scared to death [to approach him]. The things he told me when I was 24, 25, were really valuable and I think about them to this day. He told me, “If you don’t want to be in a bar band your whole life, make the kind of music that goes outside of the bars.”
How did you put together the guest list?
Rose and I wrote songs together and recorded duets. Fred, I met at a [movie] premiere and we hit it off and stayed friends. Then he was in [the Old 97’s] video for our song “Good With God.” One thing I’ve learned is that it’s really easy to think that the people who have been doing it longer or have more success don’t have time for you or aren’t interested. We talk about that on the podcast. The truth of the matter is, they’re just people. It’s like no one asking the pretty girl to the dance. Rob Thomas doesn’t get hit up a lot by people he’s known for 20 years to talk about creativity on podcasts.
What makes for an ideal guest?
I love that in the Fred Armisen story, he had so many years in a rock band and it wasn’t until he was 32 that he blew up as a comedian. It was so amazing and it makes him really appreciate what he’s got. The people who get success late, their insights might be the most valuable. Growing up, my hero was Kurt Vonnegut and he had been a scribe, a newspaper journalist, and it wasn’t until he was in his 40s that he published novels. To hear him talk later, he never took it for granted. He really worked, and when you develop that kind of work ethic and you appreciate the success when it finally comes, those insights that come from that are the most valuable.
Is the need to create ever present for you?
When we were on the beach today, I was having a moment where I was feeling the type of anxiety I always feel when I’m not doing anything. I looked around at all the people and it flashed back to a story Rosanne told me at the end of our conversation about how she had a dream about her mom and grandmother playing cards and she woke up in a cold sweat realizing that she didn’t want to waste her whole life playing cards. She wanted to do something. I had that same feeling today: Why can’t I just be a beach person and lay on the fucking beach for a minute?