Old 97's photographed in Nashville, TN. (from left) Murry Hammond, Rhett Miller, Ken Bethea, Philip Peeples Alysse Gafkjen

Music

Rhett Miller: ‘If You Don’t Give Up On Something, It Can Wind Up Being Really Beautiful’

The Old 97's frontman on the band's new album, Twelfth, getting older and getting sober, rock and roll under quarantine, being a dad, and Roger Staubach.

I’ve known Rhett Miller for more than 20 years—not quite as long as he’s been the frontman for the Old 97’s, but close. And even though Rhett lives in upstate New York now, and his longtime songwriting partner Murry Hammond lives in L.A., the 97’s are still the quintessential Dallas band to me. They’re one of the first bands I saw when I moved to town, and their music is the closest thing to what I would call a Dallas sound, mixing rock and pop and country and punk and folk and a dozen other sub-genres within the same album and sometimes the same song, always anchored by Rhett’s singing and songwriting.

Between the release of Graveyard Whistling and their new Twelfth, which comes out today, it’s been an eventful and occasionally stressful time for the band. Drummer Philip Peeples fractured his skull after a fall in a parking lot, resulting in a lengthy ICU stay, and guitarist Ken Bethea had spinal surgery after experiencing numbness in his extremities. And Rhett got sober.

None of this really comes through on Twelfth, recorded in Nashville just before the world changed. The characters in the songs still drink. No one really looks backward more than normal, because people are always looking at least to the recent past in Old 97’s songs, remembering and celebrating old times, but never exactly nostalgic. Twelfth is the sound of a band happy to be alive and together, but not worried about what might have been and what might be. The band is nearing the end of its third decade together, but just as good as ever.

I talked to Rhett yesterday morning. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Happy Record Release Eve, I guess. Oh my God. Yeah, it is. But before we talk about that, I feel like your son is almost exactly the same age as mine, maybe a little younger. My son is 16. How old is yours now?

He’s 16. He turned 16 April 1. Jesus Christ. What the fuck?

I know. How did that happen?

Somebody just asked me that the other day. I put up a picture of him, after I gave him a haircut, and they were like, “How is he a grownup?” Max is 6’1” now.

It is crazy. It’s crazy being in—I don’t know, because, I mean, just the way things are now, Facebook or Instagram will constantly show you photos from a few years ago. It doesn’t seem like all that long ago. I mean, I get photos from what maybe a couple of years ago and he was small, smaller, and now he’s a grownup, we’re having grownup conversations. Well, I’m proud of you, dude. Good job. You made a human being.

You, too. How are the kiddos doing with all of this, the last several months? They’re OK. My daughter’s here right now. She’ll be wandering in and out of the room. It’s funny, I do so much of this stuff down in my office with the door closed that whenever it’s an actual phoner, I set up—especially as my wife is still crashed out—I can sit up in the living room and she walks through and makes fun of me while I’m talking about myself. She’s 14 and she’s starting high school in a couple of weeks. It’s weird. It’s all very weird, but what are you going to do?

Yeah. Back to photos, I got one today, in my Instagram archive, reminding me that it was the first day of Isaac being a freshman in high school, this day two years ago. That’s got to be weird, starting high school in the middle of this. Are schools open up there, or are they going to be? They were and then they realized they didn’t have the funds to comply with the state guidelines, so they weren’t going to be safe. Now it’s all online. We’ve got a handful of friends that the kids have finally—we opened up our bubble a little bit, which, thank God, after four months we needed that bad.

Oh, sure. So the kids will be probably in pods with a couple of other kids. My son has been in a pod with his girlfriend since day one of the pandemic, so he’s been winning the pandemic.

[laughs] Of course. Speaking of that, it seems you were one of the first ones I saw who really had a perform-at-home setup going, it seemed pretty quickly, and a full schedule, and you’ve kept it up. What have those shows been like? Well, I started March 16th.

Wow, that’s even quicker than I remember. I got the news March 12. Well, I got home from Nashville making the record March 12. March 13, New York State shut down. There’s the drummer-producer, Rip Rowan, who is married to Vanessa Peters. She’s really popular in Italy, and they were over there when everything was started. And so Rip was writing to a handful of friends saying, “Guys, this is for real, you need to be prepared for this to be way bigger than everybody’s saying it’s going to be.” And so I kind of had an early heads up that this was going to be a longer deal than than we all thought it was going to be in the American media.

When I got home from that recording session, I just started looking into platforms and settled on this one kind of arbitrarily. I liked the idea that it only happened in real time and it wasn’t archived. And I liked that it was experienced in the moment. It also had a sort of a built-in monetization, so I didn’t have to always be saying my Venmo over and over, like, “Please, please give me money. Oh my God.”

But I just decided if I’m going to do this, I should really do it. And so I got a good microphone from Apogee. I got gouged on eBay for an HD camera, but got that set up early, and started doing four shows a week. In less than a month, I’ll be doing my 100th show on there.

That’s crazy. It’s crazy. It’s replaced the lost income for sure, and it’s also given me something to focus on that feels creative and feels like some version of what I do. I feel really lucky to have it. I feel bad that my—Murry’s done a few shows on Facebook Live, but my bandmates don’t really have the same kind of opportunity to do this because I can sit down with a guitar and do it, and thank God I’ve got a built-in now fan base of people that come back four times a week to these shows. But I’m pretty lucky, I guess.

How are the guys holding up without being able to do anything? It sucks. It really sucks. This record, too, we’re so excited about it. The songs are so fun to play and really more so even than Graveyard Whistling. We really liked that record. I think we felt like it had some high spots on it, some great moments and some songs that were really fun to play. But top to bottom, it wasn’t a record just filled with songs that we thought were going to go over gangbusters live. The new record, all of these songs are super fun to play and we’d be able to rotate them into our set night after night. And we were planning on being out from the beginning of September through the end of the year. And obviously, who knows when we’ll be able to go out, and by the time we’ll be able to go out, how old will this record even be?

I’ll be 50 in a couple of weeks and I’m the youngest guy in the band, but even then, we’re not as old as a lot of bands. I feel bad. We’re friends with the band X and they just made their first new record in a long time and it’s really great, but Billy Zoom is in his 70s and has battled cancer. Billy Zoom is not going back out on the road probably ever. So that band, they may never get to play live again. I think we will, I hope. I’m knocking wood. But oh my God, it’s just so weird.

I mean, it sounds like it’s going to be at least another—I don’t know. I mean, who knows. Because once everything gets back over and get people, I guess, over the fear of being in that kind of place again, other than college kids, it seems that most people are a little bit afraid of that. Yeah, other than the college kids. I know we are. We’re not going to be doing any indoor shows for a long time. And then outdoor shows, here in New York, there’s another maybe six weeks of opportunity to do outdoor shows. I’ve actually put together a local band. My drummer Angela from the solo band that I’ve had on and off for the last 15 years—was The Believers, then became The Serial Lady Killers. We haven’t played together in a few years. But Angela married my brother-in-law. So she lives up here and she’s still an incredible drummer. So I roped her in and I got a couple of other local musicians that I’ve always kind of liked, admired, been friends with, but never played with. I put together Rhett Miller and the New Paltz All-Stars. We just did one benefit for friends in the backyard behind a brewery. We’re going to do another, just a couple of little shows that are all super-limited and outdoors.

It’s funny how you have to be so—you have to put so many disclaimers now on things like, “I swear to God, we’re not going to cram a bunch of people together, like assholes.” So that’s been good. We’ve been able to play in my garage with the doors open and being able to get loud and play live rock and roll. But I don’t know when we’ll be able to… Murry’s off in Los Angeles and Philip and Ken are both in Dallas. So Murry and I would probably both end up driving to Texas to do whatever we were going to do. But even then, they’ve all had health issues. They’re not young. I feel lucky that we’ve had such a good run for so many years and that the fanbase that we’ve built up is big enough where I’m able to do these online shows, but it’s all pretty coo-coo.

I can’t believe you’re about to be 50. You don’t seem like it. I know. Thanks.

Do you feel like it at all? My kids make fun of me all the time for being old and my bandmates all already got there first. It’s funny, and maybe you’ve been this way, too, Looking at the people I’ve always hung out with people, they were a little older than me. I was always the kid. I mean, I guess I’m ready for it. I look around and 50 is the new 40, and 40 is the new 16 or something.

That’s what I’m hoping. I’ve got a couple more years. But basically, because I hang out with older people, I think most people already think I’m like 50. They just average up, I think. Did you think when he started the Old 97s, did you feel like you were going to be spending half of your life in this band, that you’d still be doing when you’re 50? No. One of our big talking points early on, when Murry proposed the band name, there was some discussion about, “Well, will it be confusing in 1997 that we’re the Old 97s,” and none of us had ever been in a band that lasted more than six months. The idea that we would still be a band four years later was impossible. So to be doing this 27 years later, over half my life now has been in this band with these same four guys, it’s incredibly unlikely. But how fun is that? How cool is that? I pay a mortgage and feed two giant human beings with this band. Crazy.

And not only that, it seems, just thinking about it, to me it seems like starting with Most Messed Up, it’s a new era and it’s got a new sort of momentum to it. Yeah. I don’t know why that is. I remember some time around Most Messed Up, feeling a shift where we went from being just one of the bands that had been kind of in the scene for a while to being the band that had survived the longest. We were suddenly elder statesman. I noticed that when articles would appear and the word like legendary would be in there, or iconic. The first time that happens, you get the feeling like, “Whoa. Everybody tap the brakes. We’re still young and vital. What’s going on?” But I realized at a certain point that the longevity that that kind of status affords you is Willie Nelson stuff.

In a perfect world, when we entered this sort of latter, second, third, whatever it is, phase of our career, maybe we get to really just do this until we croak, knock on wood, which is hopefully a long time from now.

There’s a song on the new one called “Belmont Hotel.” I wrote something about the 25th anniversary of the band a couple of years ago, and Ken sent over some photos and he sent, of course, those photos from the photo shoot for Hitchhike to Rhome and it was in that parking lot at the Belmont. And I didn’t realize until he sent them over that that’s where it was shot. That photo that ran in D, of us crammed into a phone booth in the overgrown parking lot of the abandoned Belmont Motor Court, that was from our very first photo shoot. It might have even pre-Hitchhike to Rhome, but it was definitely around our very first record, 1993. It’s funny because my grandfather used to take girls to the Belmont Motor Court in the 1950s, and then it was just an abandoned haven for junkies and vagrants. It’s so beautiful now. That was what got me, was thinking about my own personal history with this location and my family’s history with this location, and just the metaphor. It was just a rich metaphor for something: if you don’t give up on something, it can wind up being really beautiful.

I was staying there because they give rock and rollers a good rate. That’s why Alejandro Escovedo has lived there for years, and Raul from the Mavericks stays there all the time. I was staying there and I just was thinking about my band, my marriage, my lifelong friendships that I’ve had, and just how similar they are to this beautiful hotel that could easily just have been razed to the ground and covered over with whatever, another warehouse.

One thing you’ve been open about in the run up to this release is getting sober. Was there any sort of big incident or was it, I feel like a lot of times, where it’s just a bunch of small things add up and you’ll just go, “OK, fine, that’s it”? It was more a collection of small things. I didn’t wind up in jail. I didn’t wind up in the hospital. I haven’t done a ton of AA stuff, but I’ve done enough to hear the stories of people’s bottom. They call it, “My bottom,” which it always makes me giggle when they talk about their bottom. Mine was a long thing. I was looking at my kids who were both on the brink of young adulthood and I was thinking, “I really want to be there for them. I want to be present. I want to be aware. I want to be my best self. If they have an emergency situation at midnight and they need me to come rescue them, I need to be able to do that.” It just felt like time.

That’s one thing they say in the program. It wasn’t working for me anymore. I thought it seemed it was going to be impossible from when I was on the other side, and now that I’m on this side, it’s so much easier than you think it’s going to be. It’s so rewarding in a way that you don’t expect it to be. I don’t really want to be some giant missionary for sobriety, but I just know for me, it wound up being a really great thing.

Was there anything that you were—because you have an unusual job, obviously. Was there anything you were worried about, like it would be too hard to do because it was kind of baked into everything. You know what I mean? Did you worry it was going to be harder to write songs, or perform, or whatever? Yeah. Well, I mean, my self-identity has been so wrapped up in self-destruction since I was a teenager. I started writing songs when I was 13, tried to kill myself when I was 14, and then started using booze and weed to sort of do the job slowly, and cigarettes for years and years after that. But it was so much part of just sort of who I imagined myself to be for so long, that when that identity was no longer available to me, I had to kind of go and find like, “Well, who actually am I? Was this the only thing that made me interesting?” Yeah, that was the trickiest part of the whole thing.

I think with so many things, what helped me through to the other side was just is leaning on friends. I would go write songs with Butch Walker and Nicole Atkins and whatever. Not sober people, necessarily. In fact, Nicole got sober shortly after me, but she wasn’t. It’s funny, when Butch and I were working together, he was asking me about it. That’s been a funny thing, too, is you’d see just other people who—it’s a journey and a lot of us wind up in this place where you’re like, “OK, I drank all the whiskey and that’s fine now. I’m done with that now.”

I hadn’t been sober for too terribly long, maybe a year or two, when I got a call from Joey Santiago from the Pixies, who’s a friend of mine. He was like, “I need to ask you questions about this.” I’m like, “OK. Yeah, this is how I did it.” I called my friends and I asked them questions about it and it’s not impossible. That’s the main answer: it’s not impossible. It seems like it is, but it’s not.

When Philip got hurt, and then when Ken had to have surgery, did that make you start thinking about the future of the band or just the future in general, because everything is—I mean, those were pretty big incidents. Yeah. I mean, it’s funny. I guess the Peter Pan syndrome that infiltrates my job extends to the feeling of invincibility, extends all the way into adulthood for us. That feeling of our band could go forever, there’s nothing that could stop us. I mean, we made it through the major label system and its disintegration or obliteration or whatever happened to that business model. We made it through the transition into me making solo records, which a lot of bands don’t make it through that weird thing. I think we all felt like nothing could stop us now, because we’ve decided we’re going to, we want to be a band, and the only thing that could keep us from being a band is making some decision or having some personality conflict, and since we’ve kind of gotten past that, knock wood.

Then when people started having physical problems—Philip wound up in the ICU with a broken skull from a fall in Los Angeles. We wound up having to have Jason Garner from Polyphonic Spree fill in for Philip for a month on the road. And then we had a whole session planned and Ken wound up having to get spinal surgery because of some weird situation. The surgery went great, but it could have gone sideways, and it could have been something even worse. It could have been Parkinson’s. He was afraid for a minute it was that. I think he’d be OK with me saying that was a fear he had.

So that meant that there are things that are out of our control. And eventually, years from now, hopefully, one of us will get too old to do it or die. That’s the way it is, that’s life. But it made us all, once we realized Phil was going to be OK, Ken was going to be OK, I think that was part of what made the recording session for the new album so great, was that we were all so grateful to be able to do this thing, that for a couple of hot minutes it looked like we were not going get to do it anymore. It’s fun, Zac, it’s so fun to do this.

I have a pretty fun job, but I’m always jealous of musicians, to get to do that as a job, it’s pretty amazing. I always try to subtly push Isaac in that direction, but he has no interest. My kids don’t either. It’s funny because for some reason, music feels like it kind of trumps everything. I’ve talked to actors and comedians and people that have these really fun jobs, jobs that I’m jealous of, and they all, to a man, say that they would rather do rock and roll. Years ago, we had a friend who was dating Tom Brady, who had just won his second Super Bowl. We were having dinner and I was trying to ask him questions about how he reads coverages. He just kept stopping me and asking me about rock and roll. I’m like, “What are you doing?” He’s like, “I would give anything to do your job.” I’m like, “Bro, you’re Tom fucking Brady. I think you’re good.” For some reason, this job just has such a fun mystique. But, I mean, I get it. I would never want to do anything different. Except, that said, right now, my forced quarantine at home with my kids is an incredible—the word blessing is so cheesy.

It’s been ruined. I know. But it’s such a brilliant thing to be able to be home. I wouldn’t be around my kids right now. I’d be on tour for three months straight. They would be in high school and at sports and with their friends, and I wouldn’t get to spend any time with them. And as it is, I’m with them all the time, and they’re so fucking cool, and they’ll be gone. In four years, they will both be gone out into the world. Hopefully, we’ll be friends and hanging out a lot, but to get to be with them, who knows? But to get to be with them right now, this much, it’s one of the many silver linings that I’m trying to focus on to keep myself from going crazy.

One last question, about the cover, the classic shot of Roger Staubach: have you met him before? Oh, yeah. I’m friends with a couple of his kids, mostly Jeff. Jeff’s a fan of the 97’s, and I met him just through my brother, and some charity stuff, and Michelle Grimes also.

Of course, you know everyone. [laughs] Jeff is such a good dude. And so, he had invited us for a few years running, we got to go see football games from the Staubach family box, which is so fun, too. Because then you go to Roger’s house, you park your car there and then everybody rides in the Sprinter from there. I remember at one point, I’m like, “I know where Roger Staubach’s hide-a-key is.”

I had the vision for that album cover in a dream. Right before we went into the studio, I woke up at 5 a.m. and I just saw the whole thing, and immediately googled it and put together a mock-up that is remarkably similar to the finished product of what the album cover looks like. It was jumping through hoops to get the clearance for all that. Getting Roger Staubach to sign off was actually pretty easy just because Jeff went to him and said, “Man, this would be cool.” So he was like, “Sure, I like those boys.”

Then getting the photographer—Neil Leifer is this really famous, iconic sports photographer. His catalog is now controlled by Sports Illustrated and they were not going to give us a price that was going to work for the record label until I called in a favor from Jon Wertheim, the Sports Illustrated editor, because I had written a piece for him about my grandfather owning the NFL team years ago. He and I are friends, and I got to get him to go to Sports Illustrated. Thank God for that because that was going to ruin the whole deal. And then I had to get Roger and Jeff to write an email to the Joneses. And then the Joneses will do anything I guess, to keep Roger happy, thank God. They said yes, and then they reached out to the NFL. It was really three months of jumping through hoops to get that album cover to become a reality. But how great is that?

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