Old 97's: Grand Plans and Graveyard Whistling

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Old 97's: Grand Plans and <i>Graveyard Whistling</i>

Roadside Americana didn’t come any more imposing. From 1952 to its destruction by fire in 2012, Big Tex was a 55-foot tall statue—and marketing mascot—that welcomed everyone to the annual state fair in Dallas, via a loudspeaker in its throat and eventually an accompanying wave of a refitted mechanical hand. And for several prime years before he was born, Old 97’s anchor Rhett Miller proudly declares, his millionaire grandfather Giles Miller was the cowboy-clothed icon’s official Southern-drawled voice. “So you would sit in a shed on the other side of the parking lot with a microphone and say, ‘Howdy, folks! Welcome to the state fair of Texas!’” he says. “So when I was a kid there, the state fair of Texas was a huge deal for me. I grew up not only familiar with its history, but kind of being a part of it.”

As much as Big Tex, Miller adored the midway games, the corn dogs and cotton candy, the farm animal competitions, even the sense of danger that hovered over the sketchy-looking carnies and their potentially dangerous rides. It made such a lasting impression on him that—even though he’s resided with his wife Erica and their two children, Ma and Soleil, in New York’s bucolic Hudson Valley for many moons—when he got the chance to launch his own Old 97’s-sponsored County Fair in Dallas last year, he jumped at it. And surprisingly, it was a huge hit, right from the outset.

The inaugural festival featured the group, flanked by the like-minded alt-country artists Lucero, Deer Tick, Drive-By Truckers and Nikki Lane, plus traditional midway food and attractions, plus a monstrous ferris wheel. Miller always imagined himself a ringmaster of sorts. “Because we were trying to do a festival for a lot of years, but it was just such a pain in the ass with all the risk and all the insurance,” he says, sighing. After meeting Texas concert promoter Josh Florence—and playing one of the sleekly run Home Grown events—Miller knew he’d found the man to make his circus a reality. For 2017’s second run, he and his bandmates (guitarist Ken Bethea, drummer Philip Peeples, and bassist/co-vocalist Murry Hammond) hatched still grander plans.

“It was a very male lineup last year, and that bothered me,” says Miller, 46. “So I really started thinking about this year, and envisioning it. And Lucinda Williams was my first target—I wanted her to be the top of our bill. But it took freaking forever, working on her and Tom, her husband, and their booking agent.” What could finally seal the deal with the reluctant artist? Miller had an idea. To share with her the budding popularity of what he’d created, he says, laughing, “I sent Lucinda a picture I’d taken from the top of our ferris wheel, looking across the midway to where 5,000 people were standing in front of the stage. And I said, ‘This is a really worthwhile thing, and it’s going great.’” She promptly agreed to appear, as did soul legend Mavis Staples. Which all nicely ties in to the galloping new Old 97’s record, Graveyard Whistling, in his opinion.

“It has a lot of themes of judgment, and the apex moment is ‘Good With God,’ with Brandi Carlile, where she plays God as this female God,” he says. “And this year’s iteration of the County Fair being so female-dominant? I didn’t know in advance that we were going to be living in the year of the Women’s March, or the year that women’s rights were the most threatened that they’ve been in 50 years. And I only wish that wasn’t the case. But maybe there was a moment of prescience there.”

Maybe. But Miller has always been one of folk-rock’s savviest songwriters, starting with 1995’s loquacious sophomore disc Wreck Your Life for Bloodshot and its even wordier 1997 followup for Elektra, the picture-perfect Too Far to Care, wherein he came into his own as a James Thurber-clever lyricist and a neighborly, campfire-warm vocalist who could combine groaner puns with keen social observations amid Link Wray-immense cowpunk hooks (courtesy of the seemingly effortless riffs of the knowledgeable Bethea). As any inquisitive composer would, he would go on to experiment with pop, folk and Great American Songbook-strict genres, both with the 97s and on seven solo albums, including 2015’s The Traveler for the group’s new imprint, ATO. But with 2014’s twanging Most Messed Up for said company, the group boomeranged back to the sound that defined it in the beginning, starting with the snarky opening loper, “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” in which Miller cynically reflects on his determined career: “We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive/ Propelled by some mysterious drive/ And they still let me do it as weird as that seems/ And I do it most nights and then again in my dreams.” Graveyard Whistling—tracked in the same Tornillo, Texas studio where Too Far to Care was polished, now called Sonic Ranch—follows streamlined suit. The guy is most assuredly on a Renaissance roll.

It would have been all too easy for Miller to have studied the Idiocracy-insane political environment over the past year and leapt right for the Donald Trump jugular. Instead, he wanted to explore other topics, using oblique strategies to arrive at his conclusions. “With Most Messed Up, the reviews and the chart positions and just the way it felt were great,” he explains of his motivation. “And it was weird, because it was such a late-career moment to have it be that overwhelming of a positive response. So following that up presented a new problem, because I don’t want to just make the same record, over and over again. And Most was such a specific record, a beyond-the-pale exploration of sin and excess. So I found myself writing these new songs that were the Saturday morning equivalent. If the last record was Saturday night, this was a lot of atonement. So it was a creepier pile of songs I was working with. But sonically, they did kind of remind me of Too Far to Care.”

The Vance Powell-produced Graveyard kicks off on another classic gallop with “I Don’t Wanna Die in This Town,” as Miller observes his David Lynch-surreal surroundings and wonders how in the hell he got there (“There was a highway, Frank singing ‘My Way’ or maybe it was Sid/ Now I’m paying for what I did… Step on the gas, get outta here/ I don’t wanna die in this town”). It segues into a clanging Bethea-powered chugger, “Bad Luck Charm” (“If you cross your fingers you can hang me on your arm/Baby I’m a bad luck charm”), the pedal-steel forlorn dirge “All Who Wander” (“All who wander are not lost/ Just me, just me”), and the punkabilly hoedown “Jesus Loves You,” with Miller’s most cutting and assured witticisms yet: “He’s got the whole world in His hands/ I’ve got Lone Star in cans…You say Jesus loves you, but what about me?” And the urgency never wanes.

“Good With God” feels like a methedrine-injected “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and counters Miller’s pious mea culpa “All I know’s I’m good with God/ I wonder how she feels about me” with Carlile’s feral avenging-angel rebuttal: “You should be scared, I’m not so nice/ Many a man has paid the price…you’re just a joke that’s going around.” Then there’s the acoustic-strummed jangler “She Hates Everybody,” which revives the singer’s old trope of the damaged femme fatale (“She’s a lovely girl but she’s a misanthrope/ She’s sick of the world she’s at the end of her rope/ She’s had it up to here with everyone but me”), and a couple of celebratory, don’t-think-too-deeply anthems, the punk-frantic “Drinkin’ Song” (“I’ll kick your ass if you don’t sing along/ Let’s sing a drinkin’ song”) and the jig-like—and self explanatory—“Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls.” Hey—the guy has been doing this longer than you’ve been alive. He deserves to just cut loose with classic punk rock bonhomie every now and then.

Miller says his first choice to play the Lord in his “Good With God” passion play was Carlile. It took a while for their schedules to click, and he didn’t know when he first pitched her the idea that she was, in fact, deeply religious. “So I was surprised that she was so open to doing this thing might be seen as blasphemous,” he says. “But once I laid it out for her and played her what I had of the song so far, she got really excited about it. And she did a great job, and was really cool about it.” But he had a religious childhood, too, regularly attending church and eventually joining the choir and becoming an altar boy. Baptists would throw the concept of hell around to scare kids into behaving correctly, so it wasn’t a stretch for him to tap into it for tunes. “It felt like I was drawing on a lot of personal experience, from spending hours in a freaking robe holding a burning candle, next to another guy in a robe pouring wine,” he says.

There were more whiffs of déjà vu hovering over Graveyard Whistling. When Miller checked into his Sonic Ranch room—the same one he’d been in 20 years before, recording Too Far to Care—he found a relic of a note in the bedside table someone had written him about Mark Eitzel from American Music Club, urging them to collaborate on music at some point; Only recently did he bump into the ever-curmudgeonly Eitzel, and they did hit it off, perhaps sharing the same dark worldview. “And there was a scrap of paper with my handwriting on it that read ‘Lisa at work’ with a New York phone number on it, and it was my girlfriend at the time we made Too Far to Care, so the time machine element cannot be overstated. It was insane.” Doesn’t it say more about the housekeeping staff at Sonic Ranch than time capsules? Miller guffaws. “Yeah, they don’t clean up a lot there, I’m guessing. Even during renovation.”

When he was first starting out, back in 1989 with his DIY high-school-era debut Mythologies, Miller was worried that rock stardom had an expiration date of age 30. So he dropped out of Sarah Lawrence, gave up his creative writing scholarship and got busy creating. Now he can’t stop, or even slow down. He has a novel or two in the works, but lately his non-fiction articles been in high magazine demand, like the popular Bowie remembrance he wrote for Salon last year. After teaching a course at a writer’s conference in Florida last year, he stumbled on his newest project—writing a serious how-to manual for budding songwriters. “Because I believe in the idea of expertise, the idea that putting in 10,000 hours or more is going to make you good at your craft,” he declares, a fact hammered home by the release of Desperate Times, an actual Old 97’s covers album featuring homage-paying peers like Slobberbone, Sarah Jaffe, Kelly Willis and even Polyphonic Spree.

Having examined his existence, this closet optimist has not found it wanting. On NPR’s Fresh Air, he was so taken with host Terry Gross that he discussed remarkably personal subjects, like an actual suicide attempt he made at age 14. Realizing that his own son Max was approaching that age, he got involved with the Okay to Say suicide prevention service and a national hotline as well. “When Okay to Say reached out, I was really glad to be able to do it,” he says. “They were grateful for anybody who’s willing to talk about that kind of thing—things that are potentially embarrassing or that render you vulnerable. So I look at my kids and think, ‘Holy shit! It’s way better to talk about this stuff than to just pretend everything’s okay all the time.”

What conclusions has Miller come to at this moment in time? Some simple ones: there will no petting zoos or animals of any kid at the Old 97’s County Fair, nor frustrating hand-cranked crane games, either. “Those are a disaster!” he says. “My kids poured 20 bucks into one of those the other day at a bowling alley uptown, and all they got were two little bouncy balls. Although they really did feel like they had conquered something.” But seriously, folks. “When you hit middle age, you see it all stretch out behind you and in front of you, so neither the past nor the present are real—they’re just concepts,” concludes the auteur, who has been touring and collaborating with Evan Felker from The Turnpike Troubadours. “And you realize how long life is, and how simultaneously short it is.

“So that thing happens where you think, ‘I want to make something meaningful out of this, this time we have. But also, I don’t want to squander it.’ It’s like that Winston Churchill quote that’s getting passed around these days—he was asked if he was going to cut funding to the arts so they could give more money to the war effort. And he said, ‘Well, then what are we fighting for?’ That’s sort of how I feel about life.”

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