Music and Friendship on the Road

The spirited band, the Old 97’s is more then the music it plays. In a recent phone interview with musician Rhett Miller (lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist), the Old 97’s group has marked over two decades of playing a special mix of rock with hints of alt-country. The band has “a lot of energy,” and they consider themselves “to be a rock ‘n’ roll band first and foremost,” says Miller. The Old 97’s was formed by Miller in Dallas, Texas, and soon after releasing the groups’ first record, Hitchhike to Rhome, they hit the road in support of the new album.

The band continued to perform with Murry Hammond (bass guitarist and backup vocals), Ken Bethea (lead guitar and backup vocals) and Philip Peeples (drummer and backup vocals), and in 1997 recorded the album Too Far to Care. But it was when the hard driving group in 2001 released Satellite Rides, that they broke past musical efforts and hit Billboard’s Top 200 at Number 121. Miller reflects on the music of the Old 97’s music by saying “we’ve been sort of lumped over the years with the alt-country theme, but in our heart we’re just a grange rock band that likes to jump around, likes to have fun, [and] we make sure our shows are a lot of fun.”

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While Miller does most of the band’s song writing, the group undertook another recording in 2013 on the E.P. record, Old 97’s and Waylon Jennings. The band cut two songs with the country legend, and according to Miller “getting to meet and work with Waylon Jennings was a highlight of my career. It was a long time ago that we recorded with him.” Miller grew up idolizing Buddy Holly and he got into music because of the friendships that make up the life of an artist such as between Holly and Jennings. And over time Miller has made friends and collaborated with many people. “And Waylon was really the first experience, he was so kind, and so generous, [and] it was a great experience.”

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The band has survived the twists and turns in the music industry and currently has 10 records to their credit, four E.P.s, and a mix of television and movies which have featured some of the groups music, such as Scorpion (“Question”), to “King of the World.” And in their recent energetic record, Most Messed Up, the group has hit Billboard’s 2014 chart at Number 30. But when the band is not recording they are touring and meeting their fans. Miller also loves standing in front of an audience, getting feed back, and telling stories with the Old 97’s. “I love touring, I feel like I was born to be on the road. I love the feeling of rolling into town after town with my little group of friends, and you know, we’re going to take over the town with our music.” For Miller, the act of writing songs is solitary, but his experience of taking the stories to the people with the band is communal. But things are different for the Old 97’s because everyone in the band has family and children at home. “And it makes it a lot harder to leave and do this weird job. But the nature of the [music] industry in the last two decades [has] changed such that the only way to make a living is to go out on the road. There is no real value to recorded music anymore. But the good news for me is that I really do love that. And my kids understand, and they are proud of me for what I do. I love what I do. A lot of musicians only like making music in the studio, and the idea of standing on stage every night is burdensome or horrifying,” states Miller. For Miller there are so few opportunities for people to connect with other people in the modern world, and he enjoys connecting with the audience and with the band as they perform. Because it’s not just about the music, it’s about seeing people who want to dance and have fun too.

by G.M. Burns