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?

Rhett Miller sits on a couch in the Driskill Hotel's mostly deserted, overdecorated ranch-styled lobby. A bright red baseball cap tugs awkwardly over his eyes; his lanky frame is engulfed by an even brighter lime-green button-up. He thrusts his head forward attentively as he speaks into the tape recorder of Peter Blackstock, editor of No Depression, a magazine that chronicles the goings-on of anyone who ever sang with a twang. Miller answers Blackstock's questions in a voice that would sound insincere coming out of anyone else's mouth, a high-pitched conspiratorial tone that makes everyone he meets feel like his best friend in the world.

God knows, this might be the worst friggin' place to conduct an interview--sitting between the bang-bang-BANGING of hotel renovations and creaky elevators, only one of which is even working--but Miller doesn't seem to mind. He is in his element.

It's only Wednesday afternoon, a day before the annual South by Southwest Music Conference officially gets under way, yet Miller's already working, smiling, chatting about his band, the Old 97's, and their forthcoming album Fight Songs, due in stores April 27. And later that evening, Miller will spend some quality time with employees from the band's label, Elektra Records, boozing and schmoozing until Wednesday night becomes Thursday morning. And there are four days to go.

Over the course of the chaotic next few days, the Old 97's will unveil a trio of tunes from Fight Songs to a receptive audience at an overflowing showcase at La Zona Rosa. Miller will race up to Dallas for a gig by the Ranchero Brothers, his side band with longtime songwriting partner and 97's bassist Murry Hammond. He will return to Austin in time to close down South by Southwest at the invite-only party thrown by Spin magazine, where former Go-Go Jane Wiedlin will plant a kiss on his cheek. Then, on Monday afternoon--hours before he boards a plane back to Los Angeles, where he's been living for a while--Miller will end up back in Dallas at the campus of St. Mark's School of Texas for the first time in a decade.

In less than a week, Miller's life will come full circle, from a crowded concert venue packed with more than a thousand people cheering for his band, to the school where he was regularly called "faggot" and his books were knocked out from under his arms so frequently that he might as well have left them on the ground.

Miller strolls across the St. Mark's campus on this sunny spring day, pointing out the classroom where he got caught cheating on a French test and the ceiling tile he used to hide cigarettes above. He looks 28 going on 17, and it doesn't seem so long ago that he was a student here.

But Miller hasn't set foot on the grounds of St. Mark's since he barely graduated from the all-boys prep school in 1989. You can almost hear his heart pounding as he walks the halls for the first time in forever, catches up with some of his old teachers, nearly drowns in a flood of memories. The school represents an uneasy time in his life, and the problems go deeper than just the cruel taunts of his classmates and his difficulty in making the grade. St. Mark's is where Miller's career began, encouraged by his teachers and parents, celebrated by the media, and ridiculed by his fellow students. It's the site of some of the best and worst times in his life. It's where his story really begins.

It's a story that includes a dozen or so bands he's been in since he started playing music half his life ago, too many missteps and regrets to count, the near-tragedy of growing up on a stage. It has almost as many twists and turns as the mystery novel Miller insists he'll finish writing one day, yet the ending is far less surprising.

Rhett Miller had to make it sooner or later; he is too talented and too relentless not to be a star. When Fight Songs is released in a couple of weeks, he could become just that, finally achieving the goal he has spent the past 13 years of his life working toward.

"It's funny--I'll think about that sometimes," Miller admits. "I'll be driving down Canon Drive [in Los Angeles] and looking at the palm trees, and I'll think, 'Wow, I'm 28 years old, I have a major-label record deal, an awesome girlfriend--this is it.'" He laughs.

"But those moments are fleeting, and they're mostly laced with irony, because I'm consumed by worry about the performance of the album...and I'm going to be 30--there's just all these things. It's the oldest observation in the world, but once you get there, you're wondering what's next."

To get to what's next, it's important to consider what happened first. Rhett Miller might have a stack of press clippings taller than he is, yet all those features and reviews have done little more than scratch the surface, only hitting the high points. It seems as though everyone in town knows the trajectory of his career, but no one really knows how he arrived at each stop along the way, how he almost gave up on his career a few years ago...and how he almost gave up on his life a few years before that.

Although Rhett Miller has toured the world over, shared stages with heroes like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and X's John Doe and Exene Cervenkova, played in front of more people than he ever could have imagined, the thing he's most proud of is his heritage. He likes to remind folks that he's a seventh-generation Texan, that several of his relatives fought for Texas' independence at the Alamo. It's something--like his long-unfinished mystery novel--that comes up in almost every interview he's ever given, an answer that is rarely prompted by a question. He's proud of the state he was born in, but the same can't be said for the city he grew up in.

Stuart Ransom Miller II, born in September 1971, never liked living in Highland Park, and he hated going to school there. Even when kids are young, money is important in the 75205 zip code, and his family didn't have much of it. He once took a beating at a local swimming pool because his family didn't have a maid. It didn't help that he was a chubby kid who did little more than read and eat Oreos or that his vision forced him to wear glasses.

At Armstrong Elementary School, which he attended until the fourth grade, the bookish Miller even started calling himself "Dictionary," figuring if he could come up with his own funny name, it would beat the kids at their game. It was a good try, but that's about all it was.

"I was really unpopular, and I was really aware of it," Miller recalls. "Some kids are unpopular and they don't care, but I was desperately wanting to be one of them. And it just never worked. I hated it."

And just when it seemed as if it couldn't get any worse for Miller, it did: He developed a mysterious inner-ear imbalance when he was in the fourth grade that rendered him unable to walk without falling down or to stand without throwing up. In time he recovered, and his stint in the hospital allowed him the time to decide to leave the Highland Park school system as soon as he could find another school willing to take him.

Having read about St. Mark's, he applied to the lush North Dallas school and got in, thanks to an essay he wrote about The Catcher in the Rye. His parents couldn't afford the school's steep tuition, but a few scholarships took care of part of it, and his grandmother paid for the rest out of her pension. At first, St. Mark's was everything Armstrong Elementary was not, a place where he could be as nerdy as he wanted and no one paid him much attention, mainly because most of the kids were just like him.

By the time he got to high school, however, St. Mark's became every bit as agonizing for Miller as Highland Park had been, but in a much more serious way. "It's tough being a relatively effeminate guy in Texas in high school," Miller says.

Years of teasing at the hands of the school's jocks and feeling like an outsider among his well-heeled classmates took their toll on Miller. The result was a bout with depression that culminated in a suicide attempt when he was 14, in the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at St. Mark's. He washed down all the prescription drugs he could find in his parents' medicine cabinet with some household poison--a Slurpee cup filled with a combination of table wax and lighter fluid.

But the Valium he had ingested slowed his heart rate enough to keep the toxins from doing much harm. At the time, Miller thought of his failed suicide attempt as just another thing he wasn't very good at.

"Everything seemed so pointless," Miller says, his voice softening to the point that the words he utters seem almost unspoken. "My whole thought was, 'Well, let's hurry it up'"--he snaps his fingers--"'I wanna see what's next.' And then there's the incredibly odd sensation of waking up in a hospital, having failed at a suicide attempt, feeling like a failure because you're alive, disappointed to be alive."

For the second time in Miller's short life, a trip to the hospital became a turning point. After the doctors determined he wasn't a serious risk for another suicide attempt, he returned to St. Mark's and began seriously concentrating on playing music for the first time, something he had been toying with ever since he and his younger brother Ross began taking guitar lessons several years earlier. He had already written a few songs, beginning at age 13, when he penned "Charles Willis Manson."

In April 1986, Miller joined a folk trio called Scarlett's Garden, a Peter, Paul and Mary-styled arrangement that played Kingston Trio and Cramps songs, as well as some of Miller's originals--essentially the same formula he would use when he began performing by himself. The 'Mary' of the trio was Rhett's girlfriend Jennifer, whose best friend was dating the frontman for the Peyote Cowboys; he was a gangly young guy from tiny Boyd, Texas. Jennifer's friend kept bugging her boyfriend to come see Scarlett's Garden, until he finally gave up and dropped by one of the band's rehearsals.

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.

"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."

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."

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.

"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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