Interview: Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s Curses His Way Into His 40s
By Courtney E. Smith
Every man reaches a point in his life where he begins to feel comfortable in his own skin. Almost no one manages it in their 20s. Most start sliding toward it in their 30s. By your 40s, you’ve actually gone too far to care. About everything. And that is where the Old 97’s find themselves, after 21 years and eight albums.
What they’ve got now is freedom, including freedom to drop the f-bomb, which singer Rhett Miller does more times than a person can reasonably keep count of throughout his band’s new album Most Messed Up.
We talked to Miller via phone to find out his thoughts on the back of the tour bus, “bro-country” and his drink of choice. One takeaway is that dating someone in a band, even in their 40s, is a real crap shoot.
Radio.com: Is f— your favorite curse word?
Rhett Miller: [Laughs] It’s awfully useful and it means a lot of different things; it’s a noun, an adjective and an adverb. Yeah, I guess I would say yes: it is my favorite curse word.
It seems like the Old 97’s have decided to lean-in to being a bawdy bar band for this record. What inspired the choice?
It started with a song I wrote in Nashville called “Nashville.” The guy I wrote it with is this old songwriter down there named John McElroy. He’s a sweet dude and a really cool guy, but we had never met before [our first session]. When I walked in, he said, “I looked you up on YouTube and I think your fans would appreciate it if you walked up to the mic and said f—.” We sat there over the next couple of hours and wrote the song “Nashville.” It’s got all sorts of curse words in it. Something about it felt really raw and honest. I thought, “Jesus, this is how we talk.” It’s how most people talk, but it’s certainly how musicians talk. It occurred to me that it might be a nice jumping off point for a whole stack of songs. So I let it go. The songs sort of sound the way it sounds when we’re in the back lounge of our tour bus, discussing our occupation.
Is letting the cursing out and talking about what your life is like a thing that you’re more comfortable doing with age? Is it something you were too uptight to do when you were younger?
I’m not sure if it’s uptight…it is. Actually, you’re probably right, it is being uptight a little bit. I think I personally have always tried to worry about making sure everybody is happy and tried to do the right thing. At a certain point, I decided I’ve tried pretty hard to be a good dude. I’ve made this body of work I’m pretty proud of. I don’t have anything to apologize for, certainly not on-stage, to my audience. This album is definitely a reflection of that.
There’s a lot of talk in mainstream country about the prominence of “bro-country” — songs about spring break, trucks, moonlight and Coors Light. Is this album the most f—– up version of bro-country, or are the characters more serious than that?
I don’t know! I’m so unaware of that. I’ve heard people describe what you’re talking about. I turned on the coverage of Stagecoach a couple of days ago. They had Don McLean up there and it occurred to me that Don McLean is like the grandfather of that kind of country. With “American Pie” he’s got the Chevy to the levee, he name drops a lot. He hits a lot of the bullet points that those country people have to hit in “American Pie.” It made me laugh.
It had not occurred to me that anything on this record could be lumped in with that and I’ll have to rethink it, but I was trying to be real.
I don’t think it can be lumped in, but I’m curious about your characters. You’re well-known for singing from the point of view of guys in the middle of universal, messed up situations.
I like details. I name drop Jameson, which is my favorite Irish whiskey. There’s a lot of little details because as a reader, that’s what always grabs me the most and makes me feel like I’m in the moment. I like if somebody’s not serving up platitudes and they’re doling out tiny little details that build a larger picture.
What inspired you to write — fiction or real experiences and things around you?
On this record more than any it was real experiences. I probably inflated them, but a lot of this lifestyle and the stuff that goes on in probably most people’s lives: when s— gets weird it doesn’t need much inflation. It’s already unbelievably strange, real life.
This record is like the personification of many of the reasons I tell other girls not to date guys in bands.
Exactly! Don’t go on the tour bus. That said, honestly I think the reason we’ve been able to survive for 21 years is that our tour bus is mellow. We exercise moderation pretty well in our band and that’s why we’ve literally survived and also survived as a band. Like I said in the song, “there’s some booze, there’s some weed, a little bit of pills but none of the hard stuff.” That’s one rule we made really early on. I watched a lot of people get messed up with coke and heroin. I thought, “Eh, I want to stay alive longer.” I don’t want to turn out to be one of those zombie looking losers that all they’re looking for is the next fix.
It’s surprising how common that was in the Texas scene in the 90s, isn’t it?
Yeah, right? I’m really proud of how The Polyphonic Spree has really flourished and survived as a band but it was sad to see Tripping Daisy when Wes died. It was a tough thing. A lot of my friends did not survive this lifestyle.
You’ve lived a lot of places outside of Texas now. Do you feel like the state is misunderstood by the rest of America?
I don’t know. When people make fun of Texas there usually is a kernel of truth, if not a great deal of truth to it. It’s sort of blown out of proportion and I guess we think we’re all that. There’s a lot of truth to that as well. I like to laugh about Texas too, but clearly I love it. I’m a seventh generation Texan and I’m sad that my kids were born in New York, but it is what it is. I take them back to Texas as much as possible.
Have you ever actually felt like “the most messed up motherf—– in town?”
I live in a small town now so it makes it a lot easier to be superlative, even in a negative way.
That’s just a statistical answer, though.
[Laughs] The answer is yes. I frequently have my s— together and I sometimes very much do not.