Rhett's exploding

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."