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?

So Miller and Hammond began convening at Hammond's Marquita Courts apartment, hammering out songs on acoustic guitars the way they used to when they first met. The duo soon became a trio when Hammond's neighbor Ken Bethea joined on guitar and accordion. They began playing places like Chumley's on the corner of Good-Latimer and Elm and Sir Jackson's Pizza in Denton. Hammond would break out his banjo, and Bethea would accompany him on the accordion he was just learning how to play. No one came to see them, but they didn't care. They knew they were making good music, and they were having fun. Getting on a label became irrelevant.

Gradually, more and more people began turning up at Old 97's gigs, especially after Hammond got over his disdain for drummers and the band hired Darin Lin Wood (now the lead singer in Fireworks) to provide the backbeat, taking the songs out of the coffeehouse. Word of the band's raucous live shows began making the rounds, and as the crowds grew each time out, Miller began to realize that the Old 97's had the potential to be the real deal. But he wasn't a believer until Philip Peeples, who had played with Bethea in the Red Devils, replaced Wood behind the drum kit.

"When Darin was around, it was still totally niche-y," Miller says. "I mean, he was all rockabilly looking, so the likelihood of us ever getting taken seriously as a rock band was slim. But once Philip joined--and Philip is so tight and is such a good drummer, and he made us all play so much better--I went, 'Oh, man. We need to get into the studio before we find reasons to hate each other.'"

The band recorded Hitchhike to Rhome, and Miller went on the road with Dallas' Killbilly, playing rhythm guitar. Touring with Killbilly, he picked up the band's strong work ethic and learned you don't have to make it in Dallas to be successful. He discovered that being signed to a major label wasn't the only way to make it, figuring out, as he says, "if you turn to your left and just start walking, there's a lot of other things that you can do, and eventually they'll be clamoring for you."

The group began to live on the road, building up a nationwide fan base that would make signing the Old 97's an offer most labels couldn't refuse. And all of a sudden, the band Miller had formed with Hammond as a reaction to all the bands they had tried to force into popularity had become just that--popular. The Old 97's were picked up by Chicago-based independent Bloodshot Records, which released the band's 1995 album Wreck Your Life. The band stayed on the road, and within a year, all of Miller's dreams would finally materialize.

Most acts who go to Austin every March for the South by Southwest Music Conference hoping to be signed are just as hopeless as those Midwestern prom queens who catch the first bus to Los Angeles after high school with stars in their eyes, only to end up turning tricks six months later. The Old 97's are one of the few exceptions to that rule. Well, sort of.

The band's showcase at SXSW in 1996 started a major-label bidding war that ended with the band signing to Elektra Records later that year. Miller had promised his mother he would return to college if the band hadn't secured a record deal by the time he was 25. The Old 97's added "Elektra Records recording artists" to their name one month before the deadline.

Of course, once Miller got the major-label deal he had always wanted, it didn't taste as sweet as he thought it would. Elektra released the band's Too Far to Care in 1997, and that was about it. The label put all of the promotional muscle of a 90-pound weakling behind Too Far to Care, letting the album starve in record-store bins. Elektra didn't try to work a single to radio stations or make a video to give the band exposure anywhere else. That the record sold more than 30,000 copies--and still sells 100 or so copies a week--has nothing at all to do with Elektra Records.

"One of the executives told me, in front of a bunch of people in the Elektra office, 'What the hell are you doing on Elektra Records?'" Miller remembers. "'You need to get off Elektra. They don't get you. Sylvia [Rhone, president of the Elektra Entertainment Group] doesn't get you. They'll never break you because they don't understand you or like you.' It freaked me out. I went home really shaken, really rattled, and I called Sylvia, and I said, 'What's the story?' And she said, 'Oh, baby, that's not true. We love you, and we're just waiting for the right thing to happen.' Since then, she and I talk on the phone, and everything's changed. It's great."

The exec who told Miller to get off Elektra is now gone from the label. The Old 97's are still there.

Which brings us to the present. In two years, the Old 97's relationship with Elektra has completely reversed. Fight Songs won't be released for another couple of weeks, but Elektra already has big plans for the album and the band. A song from the album, "19," is being used as the main song in the promotional campaign for the WB Network's Felicity. Another tune, "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)," is being aggressively promoted to radio programming directors. The label hears hits on the poppier Fight Songs; Elektra sees the dollar signs.

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