SPOTLIGHT: The Old 97’s and 25 Years of Accepting the Next Challenge
It actually wasn’t the most wonderful time of the year when The Old 97’s stepped into a Dallas studio to record their new Christmas album, Love the Holidays. No kids jingle-belling, not much mistletoe-ing.
“It was May, and it was unseasonably warm,” says Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller. “In terms of trying to create a holiday vibe, we did not do much. We brought in a few strands of Christmas lights, and that was it.”
But they were in the Christmas spirit nonetheless — though it took a while for everybody to get there.
Miller first brought up the idea of a holiday album to his bandmates of 25 years — guitarist Ken Bethea, drummer Philip Peeples, and bass player Murry Hammond — early in January 2018 before a private party in Boston that was their first gig of the year.
“I remember sitting backstage at that venue and saying … ‘Hey guys, I really think that before we do our next studio album, we should do a Christmas album,’” he says. “And, you know, the level of enthusiasm was very low. Because we had all just endured two months of listening to Christmas records and we were finally getting a respite from Christmas music, and there I am sitting down and saying we need to make a Christmas record.”
But he was undeterred.
“I sat there in the green room in front of the guys and wrote the first Christmas song, which was ‘I Believe in Santa Claus,’” Miller says. “I wrote that in the dressing room in Boston while the guys sat there and plugged their earphones into their ears and cranked up their volume.”
Eventually, though, they came around, and Miller spent winter and spring with his songwriting engine charging full speed ahead to the holidays. Except for a rocked-out rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” that The Old 97’s have been playing live for a few years now, Love the Holidays is entirely composed of original tunes. (The album's deluxe edition adds the band's covers of "Blue Christmas," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and other classics.)
Miller, who has two kids, 15 and 12, is clearly fond of Christmastime, calling it “usually a little bit frantic” but also “really sweet — it’s a magical time.” But the spirit that really drove him for this project was the spirit of a challenge.
“I’ve just always written well on demand, and over the last decade I had written a couple of Christmas tunes just to sort of scratch an itch, wondering if I could,” Miller says. “It started coalescing over the holiday season last year, and it occurred to me, like, I could do this. I could write a bunch of these songs and have them really be good songs that stand alone, that hold up and aren’t just kind of throwaway, fill-in-the-blank Christmas songs. And so I took it upon myself to try and really contribute something to the canon, and I feel pretty good about it. I mean, there’s some silly stuff in there, but I don’t feel like any of these are going to make anyone jump up to turn off the radio, like a lot of Christmas songs do.”
The songs that set him off — “It’s a pretty long list, really,” he says — are the ones that aim to tug the heartstrings entirely too far, a trap he was determined not to fall into with his own holiday songwriting.
“When you enter the specific genre of holiday music, the opportunities for oversentimentality are so profligate. Like, you can go wrong in so many ways. It gets so treacly so fast and syrupy and stupid,” he says, namechecking “Last Christmas,” for one. “You go into it with a real trepidation, like, ‘Ah, what if I don’t even realize I’m writing one of those songs?’ So I really just tried to approach them as I would any song. I tried to make them songs that I would like to listen to.”
Another songwriting challenge for Miller came with his approach to his latest solo album, The Messenger, released last month on ATO.
For much of his previous solo work, Miller, who is wary of the “navel-gazing, diary-reading nature of this job,” had avoided mining too much of his own life story for material. But for The Messenger — his eighth solo album — he put that aside.
“A few years ago it just hit me that I was tired of living with that fear, that fear of seeming self-obsessed,” he says. “I don’t give a shit. Yes, sure, I’m self-obsessed. I’m an artist, I mean, this is what I do. What am I going to write about? I’m definitely not writing essays about the political climate or the culture war or whatever, I’m writing about me and my experience in this body in this lifetime, and that’s all I can do. So I’ve really enjoyed in the last five or so years breaking that rule and writing things that feel more autobiographical.”
When he says “autobiographical,” though, he warns that he doesn’t mean a song is 100% true, or 100% factual. What he aims for, he says, is truth “on a more fundamental level.” If scenarios from his life ring true with the listener, he says, it creates something universal, meaningful for both him and the listener.
He found tapping into his own life experiences freeing, but not always easy, he says.
“There’s times on the record where I really let myself sort of time travel back to an era in my life when I wasn’t sure I wanted to be alive, and thinking a lot about the 14-year-old version of me that attempted suicide and was convinced that that was the only option.”
With a few decades of perspective now, he’s grateful to be alive, and he’s ready to talk about it.
“I think it’s probably better if I do address it, not just with my own kids but with the world, because to stigmatize and ignore that impulse or the darkness that we all sometimes fall into is a disservice,” he says. “Maybe if I’m an accountant, it doesn’t matter. But if I’m an artist I feel like maybe that’s something I really need to address at a certain point in my life when I’m able to really do it justice and not approach it with shame. Maybe it took me longer than it should have, but I’m kind of glad I got to a point now where I can revisit that moment in my life and see it for what it was, and in a way forgive myself for having gotten to that place when I was a kid.
“There’s a lot of shame that you live with, when you’re coming out of it. And I remember not wanting to ever sing about it or talk about it because I was afraid that it would sound – or worse, feel – like I was trying to dine out on it, you know? You just kind of have to get over that, because, whatever, life is short, and it shouldn’t be shortened.”
As if to underline that point, The Messenger’s songs don’t dwell on darkness. There are love songs, too, and plenty of Miller’s signature wry wit.
For more than half of the 48 years Miller has been alive, he’s been part of The Old 97’s. In the landmark alt-country band’s 25 years, they’ve played shitty bars and big-name rock clubs, signed and lost record deals, and seen their share of triumph and trouble. But through it all, the lineup has remained rock solid. It’s always been Miller, Hammond, Peeples, and Bethea — Rhett, Murry, Philip, and Ken. There’s no weak link, no revolving door.
“It’s tricky, and there are moments, even to this day, where you wonder if you’re going to survive a weekend of particularly grueling drives when you’re not on a bus, you’re in a van,” Miller says. “But I think we have been really good about respecting each other and sort of honoring each other’s space and honoring each other’s opinion.”
Miller may be the frontman and primary songwriter, but he’s not the boss. He’s realized that he can’t control what his bandmates might say on stage, or what they might wear, and nowadays he doesn’t really want to, anyway.
“You really just have to let them be themselves, let it go, and take a deep breath and keep the big picture in mind, which is that we’re very, very lucky to be able to feed our kids with this job,” Miller says. “And to keep doing this job all these years in and to still have the success that we have year after year, it’s so unlikely and it’s so cool. I just feel very grateful and I think all of us do in this band, and that’s what helps us get past those moments of ‘Oh my god, I can’t take them for one more second, I’m jumping out of the back window of the back lounge of the tour bus.’”
The musical landscape The Old 97’s entered in 1993 is almost unrecognizable today. Many of the tiny bars they played in Dallas back then are gone, including Club Clearview, where all four band members played onstage together for the first time. (The first song they played at that gig was “Eyes For You,” Bethea recalls, “and we had to restart it because we fucked the beginning.”) The music business model of that era is mostly gone, too. CDs were still an emerging medium, cell phones weren’t a thing, and the internet was still in its infancy. But one thing has stayed the same.
“With all that that has changed, the fundamental act of walking onto a stage or walking into a recording studio and delivering a song to a person and putting it in their ear and into their head and hopefully worming its way into their heart, that’s still the exact same thing as from when I did my first gig when I was 15 years old,” Miller says. “It’s a magic trick, and it’s a transaction that I will never understand however long I’m able to partake in it and be a part of it. But it’s really cool, and it’s really beautiful, and I love it. I think there’s something about it that’s really life affirming, and I think there’s something about it that makes the world better. So I think if that part of it had changed, I would really question whether or not I wanted to stay in it. But that part hasn’t changed, and that part was the part that drew me to it to begin with, the part where you’re standing with your friends on a stage or in a studio and you’re making this thing that didn’t exist before, and you’re hoping that it will be beautiful and make the world a better place. And every once in a while you get it right, and that’s such a great feeling.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Old 97's are No Depression's Spotlight band for December. Look for more about these alt-country rock-fathers all month long.