Miller Time

Old 97's front man talks about the past, the present and the future

On November 1, 1994, the Old 97's released Hitchhike to Rhome. Recorded at Dallas' Crystal Clear Sound, Hitchhike was a solid little debut, a series of melodic misadventures about being young and stupid and full of somethin' awful, whether that be heartbreak or Old Crow. The album quickly sold out of its original pressing of 1,000 copies. As Donny Ray Ford of the Cartwrights once said, "It went plywood."

Of course, a decade later, Hitchhike is recognized as something greater--the first recorded chapter in the history of an important and beloved local band. Unlike later 97's albums--which tend to get bigger and poppier as their influences inch toward either coast--Hitchhike feels firmly rooted in the black dirt of the Lone Star State. There's a dustiness, a sun-baked loopiness, a sense of being safe and stranded at the same time.

"The album has a vibe that, as far as I'm concerned, none of their other albums have," says Alan Wooley, who produced Hitchhike to Rhome. "It's a fun, folky vibe."

"The temptation with any new band is to go in and make this roughed-up rock record," says the band's then-manager Mike Schwedler, now a manager at the Granada Theater. "But it's more like a bluegrass record than a rock record. It sounds traditional. That's why for a lot of people, it's still the best album the band's ever done."

On Saturday at the Granada Theater, the Old 97's will perform Hitchhike to Rhome in its entirety, followed by a second set that includes songs off later albums, including last summer's Drag It Up.It's the first time the band has played here since the fight that happened after its July 25 show at the Gypsy Tea Room, which left Lakewood artist and father David Cunniff paralyzed. The band plans to hold a benefit concert for Cunniff at a yet-to-be-determined time. I spoke this week with front man Rhett Miller, in the final stages of inking another major-label solo record deal, about the upcoming show, the 10-year-old album and their notorious last Dallas performance.

There's a songwriting pattern that begins onHitchhike to Rhome--naming songs after girls. This one has "Doreen." Where do those names come from?

Doreen was the number-one fan of a band I played in called Killbilly. She became a fan of the Old 97's and then became a friend of ours. Basically I used her name because it's so classic-sounding, but the song is more about me.

You've said your favorite song on the album is "Stoned." Why that one?

Over the years that song has just held up. That was a reckless period in my life, as it is for most people, but especially for those of us pursuing musical careers. I don't know if I should say this, but I do remember the song "Stoned" came after a particularly sordid, brief fling with another Dallas musician with whom I share a last name [Meredith Miller]. I hope that doesn't get me in trouble. I'm very complimentary of her in the song.

What's on the cover of the album?

It's an 8-by-10 black-and-white that I found in an antique store. At the time, the kid kind of looked like me, and the girl was beautiful. I still believe the great album covers have women on them--like the Pixies' Surfer Rosa.

The back cover of the album is a distant photo of the band, and I remember that I was so hellbent on escaping the tag of "pretty-boy teen folkie" that I demanded they use a photo where you couldn't see my face. Now it makes me laugh. I'm like, "Oh, I'm so good-looking I have to hide."

After the David Cunniff incident, you were quoted in theDetroit Metro Times as saying you wouldn't play Deep Ellum anymore. Do you still feel that way?

No, that was a stupid thing to say. It's just that for the time being, it's too weird for us to go back there. This is an issue I don't really have my finger on the pulse of. I don't live in Dallas, so I'm going by what my friends and bandmates tell me and what I experienced that night. Frankly, I'm sure we will [play Deep Ellum again]. We're a Dallas band, and Deep Ellum is the heart of the Dallas music scene. It's where I cut my teeth, and where Murry [Hammond] cut his teeth and where the band started. I'm sure at some point we'll feel comfortable going back there. I just hope it's sooner rather than later.

 
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