By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
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Rhett Miller sounds surprisingly at ease. Not eager. Not too excited.
He blissfully discusses the new Old 97's record, Blame It on Gravity. And yet, he also does so ever so carefully. He thinks about each question, mulls over each word choice and all the while reflects on how he, Murry Hammond, Philip Peeples and Ken Bethea got here, to this point, right now.
"During the course of our band, we've had to weather a lot of weird stuff," the lead vocalist says over the phone, as he's vacationing at his parents' Dallas-area home. "Being a part of the alt-country movement and then trying to distance ourselves from it and being on a major label... and then being ousted from that label and then sort of being along for the ride at the end of the major-label reign...
"It's made for a lot of storm-weathering."
The storm-weathering that includes navigating bassist Hammond's now-blossoming solo career, Miller's own solo efforts and, yes, a few choice words Billboard ran in a March interview with Miller about this week's release, the 97's' seventh studio recording—quotes that seemingly painted Miller as none too pleased with 2004's Drag It Up because he let his band mates take more control in the direction of that album's sound.
Miller earned an earful for those.
So on this interview-filled morning—Miller's call-waiting is buzzing with calls from Radar magazine and radio stations eager to hear his thoughts on Gravity—he's choosing to emphasize the positive.
"So much about this record makes me feel so..." he trails off. "It's like this living thing. I can look at it, and it's like watching a child grow up, to see our band. And it just makes me feel so warm. We're like brothers, and we still love each other after all this time. We still work well together, and we still have the spark that brought us together."
He pauses for a brief moment.
"Murry and I started working together when I was 15 years old. Over 20 years ago. We work together as well now as we ever have, if not better. It's just a good feeling, a good time in our band. I feel really lucky."
Suddenly, Miller is nostalgic. Proud.
He emphasizes the fact that the record was recorded here in Dallas ("It's a love letter to the city of Dallas," he says); he praises local musician and producer Salim Nourallah for his production on the album ("He's going to wind up being a very famous producer"); and he also makes certain to specifically call out and applaud each of his band mates' contributions—and, yes, their collaborations too.
He's quick to call Blame It On Gravity the best Old 97's record yet—although he does stammer when pressed on whether it really is his favorite. He ponders the question, then says that he still hears the "full head of steam of a band coming into its own" on 1997's Too Far to Care and that he appreciates the "top-to-bottom" strength of 1999's Fight Songs and 2001's Satellite Rides. He says the same about Gravity too, declaring it devoid of filler.
But that all depends on your thoughts about the Old 97's' departure from the alt-country genre—something Miller's admittedly tired of discussing.
With each record, the band has consciously steered itself away from the genre with which it first came to prominence; Gravity, in essence, shows a band five steps removed from Too Far to Care's complete alt-country embrace. Yes, there are still hints of the old sound on the new disc, but they seem a tad strained when not wholly incorporated. Odd, too, since the best songs on the disc ("Early Morning," "My Two Feet," "Dance With Me" and "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue") are the ones that celebrate the band's alt-country beginnings.
For the most part, though, continued departure from alt-country is again the name of the game of Gravity. That, Miller explains, is the band's unflagging direction.
"A lot of what we did on Fight Songs and Satellite Rides was to try and work our way out of it by making music that was really beautiful and by letting ourselves get into the more pop-based sounding stuff," Miller says. "[As a result, the band] got bigger. The good thing is I don't feel like we ever lost, ever turned our back on who we were. I don't feel like we lost a lot of fans."
Another quick pause.
"But there was grumbling," he adds. "Every new record that comes out, we've had to contend with grumbling."
Miller's heard it all too, but says those murmurs haven't changed his thoughts on the direction of the band—something he says he's been thinking about lately as he continues to gauge the development of both the 97's and himself as an artist.
"I'm sure there's musicians out there that say, 'I don't think about that stuff,'" he says. "But how can you not? You look at your life's work, and that's what it is: your life's work. This is it. I don't have a second career that I can fall back on."
Having contemplated it, Miller says, he feels good about his band's career. And he's quite pleased, actually, that Gravity's now a part of that conversation.
"This record, for the very first time, I felt like we were able to own it," he says, again sounding at ease. "We were able to not worry about the outside world and just be there in the studio, and so present and in the moment, so proud of what we were doing and so proud of our songs.
"I felt like everything worked."