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By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
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Photo by Johnny Buzzerio/ West RecordsOn a cold hard night in a hard cold rain, Rhett Miller was born in the back seat of a Mustang to a whistling, choir-singing ma—was she whistling or singing at the time?—and a big-band-leading pa. They raised him in Dallas, and he was a bookish little boy who got bullied often, so he'd dodge the rest of the kids and play make-believe alone. When he got older, he grew into his eyes and ears. He liked the moments between people where the little details tell the larger story, he says. And he dug pop music by the Kinks and the Beatles, too, so he picked up smoking and learned to pick at the guitar. But writing was his main gig.
He edited high school literary magazines and founded one of his own, and his college essay was so wild it landed him a four-year scholarship to the best writing school in the country. Moving to New York was tough, especially since the girl back in his hometown wouldn't come with him. So maybe they put on Ray Charles and broke up; anyway, he sang about it. His mama always said you'll never meet no decent girls at Dallas honky-tonks. He split Sarah Lawrence University around 1993 after a semester. Just simply left. Not every short story needs an epiphany. And besides, he was a big Raymond Carver fan. He had plenty of time to learn on his own.
"Kurt Vonnegut didn't publish his first book till he was in his 40s," he says. But getting a band together and hitting the road couldn't wait. He still needed a vehicle for his words. So he got the Old 97's. Rhett is the band's anglophile—he loves the easy delight of pop. Ken plays guitar. He's the rocker. He's the punk. Murry plays bass and loves old country ditties. Phillip digs Rush. He's the musichead behind the kit. As a unit, they're a democracy. Or they're a tug-of-war—whoever has the most pull gets the biggest piece of the record. Rhett brings in the songs, and then they go through the machine and see what comes out, he says. Somehow people decided the Old 97's were alt.-country pioneers. Alt.-country? Hank Williams country with a weirdo slant. Songs as pissy as they were pretty. Dozens of 'em, enough to fill up six albums.
"I'm pretty prolific," Rhett says. "A lot of what I write matches reality—the paths I could have taken that I didn't. My songs sound as if I'm living this really crazy or depressed or drunken or hedonistic life. In reality, I had the opportunity to do all these things, and most of them I passed on and went back to my home or hotel room and wrote a song about what could've been." They have 11 years together, and that tug-of-war rope has led them from country to psychedelia to power pop.
Their new one, Drag It Up, is a little of everything. It feels like a live gig. It's Murry's baby, says Rhett. Meaning it's decidedly more spit, less shine. Rhett's a dad and a husband now, living in upstate New York. Being on the road is tough, but the moment where it makes sense is when they walk onstage, he says: "I look at the audience, and I start doing the thing I was made to do."THE OLD 97'S WITH JON RAUHOUSE AT THE GALAXY Concert Theatre, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA, (714) 957-0600. MON., 8 P.M. $18-$20. ALL AGES.