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?

Most of the shows the group (which also included drummer Benjamin Warrenfells) had were in front of half-filled venues that only half cared about the band. Local photographer James Bland, Sleepy Heroes' manager, remembers a show the group played at the long-gone Rhythm Room at which an audience member--annoyed that the band's set was interrupting his drinking binge--renamed them Those Three Fags.

Miller couldn't understand why Sleepy Heroes didn't work, couldn't figure out what happened to all the fans and critics who had been singing his praises the year before. For a 19-year-old kid, it was hard not to believe the things people had written about him, and Miller read every single word--still does, actually.

"I was convinced that I could make a career pretty easily out of music," Miller says. "As long as I just put something together, I could probably get signed, because Billboard had said it. When Sleepy Heroes made our album, when we first finished it and I had rough mixes of it, I took it to L.A., and I met with the few people who I'd come across during my few years as a musician. Kim Buie [then of Island Records] took a meeting with me, and she was so honest. I put on the Sleepy Heroes record, and she said, 'You're gonna release this?' I honestly thought that even if I didn't get it exactly right, the label would see the potential and want to make a star out of me or want to give me a big career in music."

Sleepy Heroes broke up three days before Under a Radio Sun was released in the summer of 1990, and for a time, Miller and Hammond went their separate ways. Hammond went on the road for a while, moving from place to place, and Miller formed Rhett Miller's Third Eye with members of Fever in the Funkhouse before going out on his own again. The pair reunited again pretty quickly, though, and according to Hammond, "did basically one shitty band right after the other, but fortunately, in a very short time."

Hammond and Miller spent the next year or so shuttling from band to band. Miller admits now that most of the bands were formed under the assumption that they would probably get signed, that he and Hammond were struggling to make it work. None of them ever did, and as the failed projects piled up--from Buzz, which featured End Over End-Pleasant Grove drummer David Mabry, to Rhett's Exploding, Miller and Hammond's blessedly brief foray into alternative rock--Miller seemed to go further and further into a tailspin.

True to one of those band's names, Rhett was exploding, all over the place. You could practically hear him searching onstage, trying to find his career amid an avalanche of missed opportunities and wasted potential. When he stopped looking for it, there it was.

As Murry Hammond walks across Live Oak to go to the Gold Rush Cafe, he asks whether this story is going to be solely about Rhett. Not at all, he is told. After all, it's impossible to write about Miller without mentioning the Old 97's. Hammond laughs and says, "That's good, because no one would give a shit about Rhett Miller if it wasn't for the Old 97's."

Hammond should know better than anyone how important a role the Old 97's have played in Miller's career. He knows that without the band, Miller could have ended up like Nick Brisco--the former Fever in the Funkhouse frontman who set up house just on the verge of stardom, another talented singer-songwriter still playing for drink tickets at Club Dada on a Thursday night.

Hammond knows just how close that came to happening. When Rhett's Exploding imploded, Miller and Hammond were fed up with the local club scene. Being in a band had stopped being about music. Neither one was sure exactly what it was about, and they didn't want to stick around to find out. They had just about given up on music, and music, it seemed, had just about given up on them.

They didn't surrender completely. Miller recorded an album at home on a handheld Sony cassette recorder under the name Retablo. The Retablo album was never released, yet it turned out to be one of the most pivotal recordings of his career. Many of the first Old 97's songs were contained on that tape, including "St. Ignatius"--the first song the Old 97's would ever record, the first song on the band's 1994 debut Hitchhike to Rhome, and the only song Hammond needed to hear to know he wanted to go wherever Miller was headed.

"He played me this song, and I just thought it was gorgeous," Hammond says. "It was a little country ditty, and I was just like, 'Oh, thank God.' I said, 'That's what I want to do. This afternoon, I'm gonna go out and buy me a little acoustic bass. I've been doing Deep Ellum and all that for so long. I'm done with it. I don't wanna ever see a drummer again for the rest of my life. I wanna play music how we first started enjoying playing music.' And that was just playing with each other, and just playing music for the joy of just playing it."

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