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."