Rhett's exploding

Rhett Miller wanted to be famous for as long as he can remember. Will the Old 97's upcoming Fight Songs finally make him a star?

And that's when Rhett Miller met Murry Hammond.

It seems as though Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond have been together forever, standing three feet apart. Hammond got Miller his first real gig, an opening set for Three on a Hill and the Peyote Cowboys at the now-defunct 500 Cafe. He also got Miller his next gig, and the one after that, before Miller started to get a few of his own. They didn't start playing together at first, not immediately, but the idea entered Hammond's mind the first time he heard Miller's songs at that Scarlett's Garden rehearsal more than a decade ago.

"I was immediately struck by Rhett's songwriting," Hammond says, sitting at a table at the Gold Rush Cafe, a short walk from the house he shares on Live Oak. "It was a real primitive version from what it is now, but basically, the flavor was there. He had songs, real songs, simple little songs, two-and-a-half-minute songs. And I was just so thankful to find somebody who was doing that kind of thing, because that's what I was wanting to do."

Hammond wouldn't get a chance to write with Miller for a couple of years, although the two became friends. After Scarlett's Garden, Miller did time in a few forgettable bands--including Rhett Miller and the Redbird Experiment and Rhett Miller's Insanity Circus--before finally striking out on his own, appearing regularly at places such as Theater Gallery and Tapaz (both owned by Russell Hobbs), Dave's Art Pawn Shop, Club Clearview, and the Arcadia Theater. He was still just a kid, not even old enough to get into the dimly lit bars he was playing, barely even old enough to drive.

Gigs became an excuse to go downtown, to a place where he was accepted for who he was. He had found a home in the Deep Ellum music community of the mid-'80s, a tight-knit group of musicians who nurtured him, made him feel as though he were one of their own. The crowds warmed to him as well, turning out in the hundreds to see this wispy kid singing in a vaguely British accent about sea-shell girls and Staten Island ferry boats.

"He was just a great-looking, promising, very personable artist," says Hobbs, who now owns The Door on Elm Street. "Just a skinny guy with glasses that was very nervous. And from the first day, everybody liked Rhett Miller. There's no doubt about it. He just had this sort of rootsy vibe--you know, this cool folkie, but modern, like right-here-right-now, real instant, I'm-with-you sort of vibe about his music, and I think people connected with that really easily."

As he devoted an increasing amount of time to his music, his career began to take over everything else: He had to use one of his publicity photos--a glamour shot of him with wind blowing through his hair and a pout on his face--in the school's yearbook thanks to an accident that knocked out his front teeth. He was a ghost at St. Mark's, sleeping through most of his classes, his mind somewhere else when he was awake.

But the faculty at St. Mark's--especially the school's choirmaster, James Livengood, and Miller's teacher and advisor John Beall--recognized his talent and understood his unusual situation. They let him retake tests, waived his math and science requirements, and when he was set to record his first album during his senior year, gave him two weeks off from school to go into the studio.

It was around then that Miller asked Hammond to produce his debut album, 1989's Mythologies, which his then-manager Allan Restrepo was set to release on his new label, Carpe Diem Records. Hammond played bass, piano, and guitar on Mythologies and rounded up a few other musicians to back Miller in the studio, including then-New Bohemians drummer Brandon Aly.

The result was a collection of sparse folk tunes about God and girls delivered in David Bowie's voice; Miller is more than slightly embarrassed by the record now. But Mythologies received favorable press both locally and nationally, including a gushing write-up in CMJ New Music Report that claimed Mythologies would "have A&R honchos banging at [Miller's] door before this review is finished." The Dallas Observer's then-music editor Clay McNear took to calling Miller the Next Big Thing so often, you would have thought that was his name.

Miller was becoming something of a teen heartthrob in Deep Ellum, his shows marked by throngs of screaming, crying young girls. Miller relished the attention: He found in the glowing press clippings--and suddenly available women--the approval he had sought for so long.

Yet he'd leave it all behind a few months later, heading to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence College on a full creative-writing scholarship. While Miller was in New York, his career kept chugging along as he played at the legendary CBGB's cantina and the campus coffeehouse. But college wasn't for him. He split after one semester--after some prodding from Hammond, who was working in Washington, D.C., as a cabinetmaker at the time, and Restrepo, who was desperate for Miller to return to Dallas and pick up where he left off. His mother, Ann Morwood, was shattered.

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