Dallas’ Old 97’s took their name from a Johnny Cash song about a train wreck. And onstage – especially when tearing through the cow-punk barn-levelers that cemented the band’s grass-roots rep – singer Rhett Miller has a tendency to rock the mike like an Amtrak snarl.
Still, that does not preclude the odd literary reference. “I read an interview with David Foster Wallace where he talked about the dearth of sentiment in contemporary art,” says Miller, who shows up for lunch at a diner across from his downtown Manhattan apartment. He sports a white dress shirt, an expensive-looking messy haircut and a gold cap on a lower tooth. “I don’t want to sit around criticizing MTV pop culture, but it’s depressing. Limp Bizkit is so depressing!”
On their new album, Satellite Rides, Old 97’s have traded much of their sturm und twang for a giddier pop kick. While the band’s earlier repertoire seemed to be written for inclusion on a Waffle House jukebox, songs like “King of All the World” and “Rollerskate Skinny” could go over on a K-Tel power-pop compilation. “I like the Beatles way more than I like any country band,” Miller insists, “so it was inevitable that that stuff creeped into our music.”
Born in Austin and raised in Dallas, Miller has been writing songs since he was thirteen. His earliest efforts were gentle acoustic numbers with, he admits, “sort of a British accent going on.” Miller recorded his own album for a Dallas indie label before graduating from high school. It had a pressing of only 1,000 copies but earned him a rave in Billboard – and, ultimately, a diploma. “I was going to this allboys high school, where everybody matriculates to Harvard,” Miller says. “Years ago, they’d kicked out Steve Miller, and now he probably won’t give them any money or come play for free, so even though I was failing bio, they didn’t want to take any chances.”
Miller landed a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence, where he studied creative writing. But he soon dropped out and moved back to Dallas to play music. Miller had met Old 97’s bassist Murry Hammond at the age of fifteen. Hammond let Miller open for his group, the Peyote Cowboys. When Miller moved back to Dallas, he and Hammond began putting together band after band, with the idea of writing enough songs to get signed. “The review in Billboard said, ‘A&R guys are going to be beating down this kid’s door,'” Miller recalls. “I took that seriously and started to think that was the goal.”
The breakthrough came when guitarist Ken Bethea moved in across the hall from Hammond. “I think a lot about ‘St. Ignatius,’ the first song on our first record,” Miller says. “I wrote it when we didn’t have a band. It was a little, loping song on acoustic guitar. Ken was working some defense-industry job, doing a newsletter for one of the bomb-making companies. He would come home from work with his tie on. One day, I grabbed him and said, ‘Hey, I’m Rhett, come over and jam.’
“So we started Old 97’s,” he continues, “a band that was antithetical to everything we’d been doing, in that we didn’t want to succeed. The whole idea was, this takes all the pressure off, because if we do this rootsy kind of thing and just mess around with the stuff we’re good at, then we won’t have to kill ourselves sucking up to the Man.”
Miller laughs and takes a sip of his Diet Coke. “And here we are.”
This story is from the May 10, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.