By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Although Rhett Miller has toured the world over, shared stages with heroes like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and X's John Doe and Exene Cervenkova, played in front of more people than he ever could have imagined, the thing he's most proud of is his heritage. He likes to remind folks that he's a seventh-generation Texan, that several of his relatives fought for Texas' independence at the Alamo. It's something--like his long-unfinished mystery novel--that comes up in almost every interview he's ever given, an answer that is rarely prompted by a question. He's proud of the state he was born in, but the same can't be said for the city he grew up in.
Stuart Ransom Miller II, born in September 1971, never liked living in Highland Park, and he hated going to school there. Even when kids are young, money is important in the 75205 zip code, and his family didn't have much of it. He once took a beating at a local swimming pool because his family didn't have a maid. It didn't help that he was a chubby kid who did little more than read and eat Oreos or that his vision forced him to wear glasses.
At Armstrong Elementary School, which he attended until the fourth grade, the bookish Miller even started calling himself "Dictionary," figuring if he could come up with his own funny name, it would beat the kids at their game. It was a good try, but that's about all it was.
"I was really unpopular, and I was really aware of it," Miller recalls. "Some kids are unpopular and they don't care, but I was desperately wanting to be one of them. And it just never worked. I hated it."
And just when it seemed as if it couldn't get any worse for Miller, it did: He developed a mysterious inner-ear imbalance when he was in the fourth grade that rendered him unable to walk without falling down or to stand without throwing up. In time he recovered, and his stint in the hospital allowed him the time to decide to leave the Highland Park school system as soon as he could find another school willing to take him.
Having read about St. Mark's, he applied to the lush North Dallas school and got in, thanks to an essay he wrote about The Catcher in the Rye. His parents couldn't afford the school's steep tuition, but a few scholarships took care of part of it, and his grandmother paid for the rest out of her pension. At first, St. Mark's was everything Armstrong Elementary was not, a place where he could be as nerdy as he wanted and no one paid him much attention, mainly because most of the kids were just like him.
By the time he got to high school, however, St. Mark's became every bit as agonizing for Miller as Highland Park had been, but in a much more serious way. "It's tough being a relatively effeminate guy in Texas in high school," Miller says.
Years of teasing at the hands of the school's jocks and feeling like an outsider among his well-heeled classmates took their toll on Miller. The result was a bout with depression that culminated in a suicide attempt when he was 14, in the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at St. Mark's. He washed down all the prescription drugs he could find in his parents' medicine cabinet with some household poison--a Slurpee cup filled with a combination of table wax and lighter fluid.
But the Valium he had ingested slowed his heart rate enough to keep the toxins from doing much harm. At the time, Miller thought of his failed suicide attempt as just another thing he wasn't very good at.
"Everything seemed so pointless," Miller says, his voice softening to the point that the words he utters seem almost unspoken. "My whole thought was, 'Well, let's hurry it up'"--he snaps his fingers--"'I wanna see what's next.' And then there's the incredibly odd sensation of waking up in a hospital, having failed at a suicide attempt, feeling like a failure because you're alive, disappointed to be alive."
For the second time in Miller's short life, a trip to the hospital became a turning point. After the doctors determined he wasn't a serious risk for another suicide attempt, he returned to St. Mark's and began seriously concentrating on playing music for the first time, something he had been toying with ever since he and his younger brother Ross began taking guitar lessons several years earlier. He had already written a few songs, beginning at age 13, when he penned "Charles Willis Manson."
In April 1986, Miller joined a folk trio called Scarlett's Garden, a Peter, Paul and Mary-styled arrangement that played Kingston Trio and Cramps songs, as well as some of Miller's originals--essentially the same formula he would use when he began performing by himself. The 'Mary' of the trio was Rhett's girlfriend Jennifer, whose best friend was dating the frontman for the Peyote Cowboys; he was a gangly young guy from tiny Boyd, Texas. Jennifer's friend kept bugging her boyfriend to come see Scarlett's Garden, until he finally gave up and dropped by one of the band's rehearsals.