Longform

Rhett's exploding

Page 4 of 8

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."

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain