The Hippo


May 29, 2020








Old 97s. Courtesy photo.

Old 97s w/ Leslie Mendelson

When: Saturday, Jan. 6, 8 p.m.
Where: 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth
Tickets: $30 at

Long-distance rockers
Raucous Old 97s play Portsmouth


 Rhett Miller recently wrote eloquently in The Baffler about the difference between today’s music business and the one his  band Old 97s sprang from in the early 1990s. The “micro-market calculation” of bots tracking Twitter and Facebook likes has replaced talent scouts, and a “profoundly isolating” world of recording on ProTools and shooting YouTube videos in bedrooms has obliviated the old ecosystem.

When he was a teenager, the urge to make music was a lifesaving force for Miller after a failed suicide attempt. 
“If I was a 14-year-old depressive nowadays,” he wrote, “I’m not sure what would even draw me into the world of music to begin with.” 
Yet he persists. His alt country band has made 11 studio records — the latest is 2017’s Graveyard Whistling — and Miller has six solo discs of his own. 
“The concept of the album to me is so powerful; it’s up there with a novel,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Even though it will be chopped up and parsed out on different playlists, I still think that the intention of putting together these songs, in this order, recording them in just such a way, is an act of love that musicians do for the world.”
He’s an an unabashed fan as well. 
“I love ... knowing how much goes in to the making of an album; the living that turns into the songs and the songs that turn into the grist for the mill that is the band so you can come out the other side and even that moment when you have to sign off on it and let it be done,” he said. “That is a terrifying thing ... taking a leap of faith and hoping that the world can appreciate [how] you’re giving them something that cost you a little bit to make.”
The Old 97s’ most recent CD is full of the darkly tuneful songs Miller is revered for. Recorded at the same studio used for their 1996 major label debut Too Far to Care, the 11-track effort is rugged, reflective and full of twanging fury. It’s a gem, from the blazing opener “I Don’t Want to Die in this Town” to the buoyant Nicole Adkins co-write “Those Were the Days.”
Graveyard Whistling is a collaboration-rich record, with contributions also from Butch Walker and Brandi Carlile. The latter sings the voice of the almighty on the rollicking “Good With God,” which she also co-wrote. 
“I didn’t want to be one more guy putting words in the mouth of a female character, much less a female deity,” Miller said of inviting Carlile to help finish the song. “She is such a cool woman, with such a great voice; I am really honored to have her be part of it.”
He first encountered Carlile at a Johnny Cash tribute. 
“I had just met Kris Kristofferson, who is one of my all-time heroes, and he and I were standing on the side of the stage,” Miller said. “I’m sure I was whipping him about how great he is or just some annoying thing, and he was being really patient and sweet about it, when all of a sudden we were both transfixed by this voice that was coming out of this tiny little woman on the stage 20 feet away from us.”
“I Don’t Want to Die in this Town,” which also kicks off most Old 97s concerts, contains a couple of nods to Miller’s musical forebears, a trick dating back to the band’s second album. In the chorus, the line “I’m just a singer in a rock ‘n roll band” echoes the Moody Blues, and “there was a highway/Frank singing ‘My Way’ — or maybe it was Sid” name-checks Sinatra and late punk rocker Vicious. 
“I really love being part of the continuum of rock and roll and what came before,” Miller said, “the idea that this is a job and that there are all these people similar to me that have devoted their lives to doing this weird job. ... When I drop a little Easter egg in there that references some old song, it’s always just out of love, because I am honored to be part of the continuum.” 
Miller’s own children don’t quite share this reverence. 
“It’s pretty funny, because my kids could not care less about what I do, they are so unimpressed,” he said. “But to me, that’s sweet. I’d rather they just see it as a job than buy into the mystique.” 

®2020 Hippo Press. site by wedu