By Lindsey Lowe Osborne
“Without music, without art, there is no meaning in life,” explains Rhett Miller, lead vocalist and rhythm guitar player for the Old 97’s. “There is a void and we fill it with beauty. That’s what I’m trying to do. Not that all my songs are beautiful. Or happy even. But the creation and the act of creation—It’s like bringing meaning to an otherwise meaningless world.”
At age 23, Miller formed the Old 97’s—alongside bandmates Ken Bethea (lead guitar, backing and occasional vocals); Murry Hammond (bass guitar, backing and occasional vocals); and Philip Peeples (drums and backing vocals)—in 1993 in Dallas, Texas. Named after a Johnny Cash song—“The Wreck of the Old 97,” as Hammond is a train buff—the band joined others, like the Drive-By Truckers and The Bottle Rockets, in advancing the alt-country movement of the late ’90s. In fact, in the New York Times story “Recreating the Past as an Anniversary Gift to Fans,” Andy Langer describes the band as “a cornerstone of the ‘alternative country’ movement, a subgenre that fused roots music with punk-rock aesthetics.”
But long before that, the band began—or rather, Miller’s relationship with music began—when music saved his life, in a way. He’s been committed to making it and filling the void ever since. “I’m the oldest son of a broken home, the child of two very intelligent, complicated people. There were some really dark moments in my childhood and younger years. I questioned the very nature of existence and the necessity to continue in this life,” he says. “Then I discovered music and it gave meaning to my life. As an adult, I have found that I have a very rich life, full of love. But it was music that saved me.”
“I did have an epiphany watching David Bowie stand on the side of the stage waiting for his encore at the end of a gig in Dallas on his Serious Moonlight tour. [There’s] something so beautiful about an artist who had just given everything to an audience, standing silently by himself, waiting to go back in and find a little more to give them,” Miller continues. “I knew I wanted that to be my job.”
So it was. After its birth, the band put out its first record, Hitchhike to Rhome, in 1994; more than a dozen followed (1997’s Too Far to Care was their major label debut), including the most recent, 2014’s Most Messed Up. According to Miller, it’s the band at their rowdiest. “A few people in my life said, ‘You can’t sing “Let’s get drunk and get it on,”’” Miller says. “I said, ‘What do you mean? I’ve been singing that sentiment for 20 years! I was just never so straightforward about it.’ By necessity perhaps, my favorite album is always my most recent album. I could go to my catalog and pull out songs that are more successful than others, not commercially but in terms of speaking the truth, but that list changes every day.”
He says that in the more than two decades they’ve been doing this, he’s discovered a few things about himself and the music his band creates, and a lot of it comes back to making sense and meaning of life. “It took me a long time to realize that in my songs I create a character whose voice is telling the story,” Miller, who does most of the songwriting, says. “Now I’m more aware of that character, but I still have to let him be whoever he is. He’s usually a pretty sad guy. He feels like people are always abandoning him. Maybe that’s a part of me that I need to work out or fix. Most people in my job will tell you that music is therapy.
“One of the big Old 97’s tricks is [that] when we write about something kind of dark and depressing, it works best when it’s a fun-sounding song,” he continues. “So it’s not until the third or fourth listen that you realize the narrator of this song is a complete disaster.”
Maybe it’s because they’ve produced music that stands up to three, four, 50 listens that they’re still here 20 years later (and they’ll be here—in Birmingham—at Saturn on May 6.) Maybe it’s because they’re writing the songs that say the things the rest of us wish we could. Whatever the reason, they’re happy to be here and excited for the future. “We didn’t think we’d last until the year 1997,” Miller says. “We thought the name would get a little weird when it became 1997, but we decided none of our bands had ever lasted that long, so let’s not even worry about it. But as it all started to unfold, we realized we could maybe make a living doing this.”•
5/5: Citizen Cope at the Lyric Theatre. For fans of Ben Harper and Dispatch.
5/14: Joywave at Workplay. For fans of Young Empires and St. Lucia.
6/5: Harry Connick Jr. at the BJCC. For fans of Michael Bublé and Andy Williams.