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?

"Too Far to Care really scared as many people as embraced it," says Tom De Savia, senior director of A&R at Elektra, one of Miller's best friends in Los Angeles, and the man Hammond refers to as "the fifth 97." "This record, radio seems to really like. There's a lot of songs on there that radio feels they can play. We're going through the list, and we're finding all these radio guys who were huge fans of the band that just couldn't play it."

The initial reaction at radio has raised Elektra's already high opinion of the band. The label is so impressed with Fight Songs, it's arranging for Miller and Hammond to record a Ranchero Brothers album, to be released later this year, possibly on an indie label. And it's making a strong move to the hoop to get the band noticed--especially Miller. In the initial marketing plan for the album, the label says it "will begin to focus on Rhett Miller as a consummate songwriter. We feel he has the talent and charisma to stand out in a crowded field."

Fight Songs is good enough for that to happen, shiny pop wiping away the tears of Miller's lyrics. So it seems that Rhett Miller is finally on the threshold of stardom, close enough to touch it after coming up empty-handed so often. As he walks away from St. Mark's for the second time in a decade, he reflects on what kept him going for so long, when he was eating Ramen noodles and digging holes for the plumber while his classmates were living in comfortable homes with Ivy League diplomas on the walls. It wasn't the major-label record deals or the press clips after all. It was the music. Still is.

"Being a 19-year-old giving a lot of interviews is really dangerous, because you don't know much at 19, and you think you know everything," Miller says. "You say things like, 'When I was younger...' Than what?'"

He laughs and begins walking to his car to get on his way to the airport to catch a flight home to Los Angeles, where he moved two years ago to be closer to his girlfriend. "I used to say, 'I feel like I'm damned to do this,' you know, like I don't have any choice, like even if I'm starving I would be doing this. And I don't feel like I have a choice. So I'd like to hurry up and make some dough so I can take some time off and write my book."

Miller laughs and walks to his car. Watching him drive off, it's hard not to think that even if Fight Songs doesn't do as well as he and his label hope, it won't deter Rhett Miller. The boy has grown up onstage, with a guitar in one hand and a half-finished mystery novel in the other. It's where he belongs.

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