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Solitary Refinement 

Rhett Miller feeds multiple musical beasts from one well of inspiration

Wednesday, Mar 22 2006
Artists in established bands make solo records for different reasons: to sate a massive ego desperately craving media attention; to cash in on near-hysterical popularity; to shake off the limitations of working in a musical democracy. Sometimes, though, they simply want to explore new terrain.

The results are as varied as the reasons, from the ho-hum Mick Jagger full-lengths and the blatant commercialism coming from Kiss members to the smash hit Justified, Justin Timberlake's bye-bye-bye to *NSYNC.

If you're looking for an aesthetic antecedent to the solo work of Rhett Miller, singer and guitarist for altcountry luminaries the Old 97's, a good point of reference is Debbie Harry's 1981 LP KooKoo. Like her initial non-Blondie outing, which paired the icon with disco innovators Chic, Miller's discs without the 97's — The Instigator (2002) and his latest, The Believer — exist fundamentally as an outlet for ideas that aren't appropriate for his regular gig. Miller doesn't make solo albums to elevate himself above his peers; he does it to ensure their continued harmonious existence.

"I started making solo records as a member of the 97's," explains Miller. (He discounts his self-released 1989 outing, Mythologies, recorded during high school.) "The band gets first right of refusal on songs. And now I have a pretty good radar as to what they're going to like or not. There are certain things that they just won't do, and that is what I put on my solo records."

Take the jaunty "Singular Girl" from The Believer, the catchiest song in eons to mention plate tectonics. Originally, it was recorded by the 97's, for their 2001 album Satellite Rides. But it was nixed from the final program and relegated to a promo-only CD; Miller reclaimed it for his own purposes. Likewise, despite repeated entreaties, the 97's passed on the moody "Fireflies," so Miller included it on The Believer as a duet with Rachel Yamagata — complete with slide guitar.

After 13 years of working in the band, Miller says he has an easier time singling out what songs the Old 97's will accept with each album. "Any one of our serious fans could do the same thing," he insists. "Brand New Way," for instance, may be a waltz — usually a shoo-in for 97's inclusion — and it even sounds a bit like Satellite Rides' "Designs on You," but as Miller notes, the tempo is too perky and the overall feel more modern than the band prefers ... hence it got a pink slip.

Given Miller's rate of productivity, the 97's are in no danger of a drought, even if their frontman continues cutting a solo album every few years. "There are always enough songs," admits Miller. "That's never going to be a problem."

It's hard to imagine anyone vilifying Dolly Parton, but back in the dark days when public opinion was aired via the editorials page, Parton was often the subject of contentious debate. This first happened when she replaced the beloved Norma Jean as Porter Wagoner's singing partner on his syndicated country music show in 1967 — and again when she left him, in 1974.

When word first leaked several years ago that the friendly-as-a-puppy Miller was eyeing a solo career, he caught hell, too. "Oh my God, it was vitriolic for a little while," he recalls. "It was tough within the band, too. I had been telling them for 10 years that someday I was going to make solo records. And, yeah, there were times when I was saying it in a vindictive way, when they were turning down another song I knew was good. But the whole Old 97's arc has been so unlikely. We started this band as a way to take the pressure off: 'Oh, they'll never sign us if we start a folky, acoustic band' — and that was the thing we did that people liked best."

The making of The Instigator proved especially rough. Producer Jon Brion was in the midst of a breakup, while 9/11 had left Rhett and wife Erica homeless, their belongings locked in an apartment building near Ground Zero. "We were two big messes," admits Miller. "The Instigator may have benefited from that, but it was definitely a weird environment."

"[The Instigator] was also a function of my fears, with regard to being on my own, after so many years in the protective enclave of a group," he adds. "I handed so much control over to Jon. And while there's really nobody I would trust more than him with my musical well-being, I still didn't control the proceedings in a way that I wished I had. This new record was my opportunity to rectify that."

For The Believer, Miller enlisted producer George Drakoulias (Black Crowes, the Jayhawks). "I had to stand up for every idea I had," he says of their in-studio dynamic. "If I thought it was worth it, I had to fight for it ... in the same way that I've always had a tug of war with the Old 97's, due to our personal likes and dislikes. George served the function the band might serve, as a musical foil."

The cover art for The Believer features a sticker declaring "File Under Rock." "That sounds so defensive," Miller chuckles. But despite the singer's altcountry pedigree, the disc really does belong in the general pop/rock section. Miller has described it as "George Gershwin does T. Rex's The Slider," and while The Believer may not be the monumental achievement that description suggests, it still boasts plenty of musical crunch and swagger, along with visceral jabs at heady emotions; the lyrics of "Meteor Shower" make love sound as much fun as food poisoning.

Miller, 35, came of age when Parton's "9 to 5" and Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" crowned the pop charts. Back then, he had little interest in country music, vintage or mainstream. "A few years ago, David Bowie — who is my idol — said he really likes all kinds of music these days ... except country and western." At first, Miller was crushed. Then he realized he'd often expressed identical sentiments. "There were times, growing up in Texas, where I thought, ÔIf I hear another stupid country song, I'm going to throw up.'"

He adds, "That is an acceptable cliche among youth: ÔI like all kinds of music but country,' because that's redneck music. And I agree with them. Because what they're talking about is the kind of country music that is popular now, which is crap, save for a few songs. They aren't talking about old country music, or Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash."

Miller spent his adolescence devouring Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, and Def Leppard. It was only after he discovered punk rock that cowpoke became safe to investigate. "I was obsessed with X, and that was how I ended up getting back into country," he says. "And rockabilly, too, thanks to the Cramps."

Good songs are good songs, regardless of genre, and though Miller may straddle classifications, he knows that a pedal steel doesn't automatically bestow authenticity on a mediocre tune. "The most unfortunate music that could be categorized as country was made by a lot of the bands that opened for the Old 97's in the '90s," he recalls. "Groups who, just months before, had been a Screaming Trees cover band. And suddenly they were jumping on the bandwagon, highlighting the most embarrassing, awkward, honky-tonk, hayseed kind of country."

Age, marriage, and fatherhood have mellowed him, but Miller still admits to a few musical prejudices. "Right around when the Old 97's got signed to Elektra, someone said to me, ÔThe next big thing is either going to be altcountry or dance music.'" Six months later, Fat of the Land by the Prodigy entered the U.S. charts at No. 1. "I really begrudged the Prodigy their success," he admits.

Today, all bets are off. Miller's aversion to club fare has waned. "I came up with a lot of dance music around, like, The Look of Love by ABC. That album is such a guilty pleasure. My best friend in high school was gay, and we went out to a lot of gay bars. There was a lot of dancing going on, right when Dead or Alive's 'You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)' was huge."

Heck, maybe Chic's Nile Rodgers can produce Miller's next solo album; if it turns out a fraction as well as Rodgers' chart-topping work with David Bowie (Let's Dance) or the B-52's (Cosmic Thing), then Old 97's supporters would have legitimate cause for concern about a split. Until that day, they should just sit back and enjoy the extra bounty Miller's solo career affords them.

About The Author

Kurt B. Reighley


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