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?

"We sat at the dining-room table--Allan [Restrepo] and Rhett and me," Morwood recalls. "And Allan was saying, 'I think he needs to be home and concentrate on his music.' I was ready to reach across the table and strangle him. But I knew that Rhett's always been really headstrong, and he knows what he wants, and whether it's right or wrong, you can't influence him any way other than what he's thinking. So I said, 'I am 100 percent against this, and if you do it, if you're starving you can come eat out of the refrigerator. And if your clothes are dirty I'll wash them. But other than that, you're on your own.' It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do with him."

Miller came back to Dallas and moved in with Hammond, and the duo began to work up songs for the band they had talked about forming, Sleepy Heroes, a power-pop affair that would take its cues from the Kinks and the Beatles. They got their first gig at Poor David's Pub on Lower Greenville opening for Robert Earl Keen. Restrepo, who was expecting the return of his beloved acoustic folkie, was not pleased.

"I'd been thinking about it for a while, and kind of keeping Allan abreast of it, and he'd been hemming and hawing," Miller says. "You know, 'This record [Mythologies] only came out a year ago. Why aren't you supporting it as Rhett Miller?' We were on our way out the door on our way to go to the show, and I said, 'Are you going to let me do this?' And he said, 'I'm not going to stick with you. The only chance you've got is as Rhett Miller.'"

Miller hung up the phone and punched the wall, fracturing his right hand.
But Restrepo, who didn't return calls for this story, was right--at least for the next few years. When Miller returned to Dallas as a member of Sleepy Heroes, all those young girls who had flocked to his shows only a few months earlier had disappeared. It would take four years and a half-dozen bands before Miller would find that kind of success again, finally breaking through with the Old 97's. But at the time, he didn't know whether it would ever happen for him again. He was washed up, and he wasn't even 20 years old.

Most people's awkward teenage years are hidden away in family photo albums and high school yearbooks, dusty relics of a time best forgotten. For Miller, they live on through the copies of Mythologies that Carpe Diem still sells and through unfortunate publicity photos. He doesn't regret anything--or, at least, not everything. He believes he had to write those songs, play those gigs, before he could finally figure it out. Miller only wishes he could go back in time and talk some sense to himself, show himself all the mistakes he was making.

"You know what? If I'd had any self-awareness at the time, I would never have done what I did, because, you know, it was ridiculous," Miller admits. "My songs were bad at the time. And then there's the British accent, which was just the accident of a kid having listened to too much David Bowie and T. Rex and Aztec Camera and anything else. And at the time, I didn't have much of a self-editing process, so I didn't know. But for some reason, it didn't hold me back." He laughs. "I'd still get gigs, and people would still write nice stuff in the press. Nobody ever wrote, 'What's this kid doing? He's a seventh-generation Texan and he sings like Morrissey."

He's not nearly as sheepish when he discusses Sleepy Heroes, the outlet for the first batch of songs he wrote with Hammond. In fact, the duo had planned on including one of the songs from Sleepy Heroes' 1990 debut, and finale, Under a Radio Sun--"Let it Go at That"--on Fight Songs, until they realized they had too much good new material to start retracing steps. "Victoria," the first song off the band's 1995 album Wreck Your Life, was a staple of Sleepy Heroes sets. It makes sense: Under a Radio Sun is only removed from the Old 97's by Ken Bethea's single-string twang and Philip Peeples' insistent shuffle, and Miller admits that the band's latest material is merely a more fully realized version of what Sleepy Heroes were trying to do.

Back then, no one wanted to hear that. They wanted Rhett Miller, folk singer, period. Even after he stopped playing by himself, it took a while for audiences to move past that phase of his career. In the 1991 Dallas Observer Music Awards, Miller was voted Best Acoustic/Folk Artist, though he had not played a single solo acoustic gig in more than a year.

It wasn't all bad for Sleepy Heroes. The band received a decent amount of press, including a mini-feature in Seventeen magazine that mapped the road to Miller's heart: "Grooviness is essential." Sleepy Heroes would finally find a following, but, as Hammond says, it was "that same following that everybody gets if they stick around long enough."

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