The group began to live on the road, building up a nationwide fan base that would make signing the Old 97's an offer most labels couldn't refuse. And all of a sudden, the band Miller had formed with Hammond as a reaction to all the bands they had tried to force into popularity had become just that--popular. The Old 97's were picked up by Chicago-based independent Bloodshot Records, which released the band's 1995 album Wreck Your Life. The band stayed on the road, and within a year, all of Miller's dreams would finally materialize.
Most acts who go to Austin every March for the South by Southwest Music Conference hoping to be signed are just as hopeless as those Midwestern prom queens who catch the first bus to Los Angeles after high school with stars in their eyes, only to end up turning tricks six months later. The Old 97's are one of the few exceptions to that rule. Well, sort of.
The band's showcase at SXSW in 1996 started a major-label bidding war that ended with the band signing to Elektra Records later that year. Miller had promised his mother he would return to college if the band hadn't secured a record deal by the time he was 25. The Old 97's added "Elektra Records recording artists" to their name one month before the deadline.
Of course, once Miller got the major-label deal he had always wanted, it didn't taste as sweet as he thought it would. Elektra released the band's Too Far to Care in 1997, and that was about it. The label put all of the promotional muscle of a 90-pound weakling behind Too Far to Care, letting the album starve in record-store bins. Elektra didn't try to work a single to radio stations or make a video to give the band exposure anywhere else. That the record sold more than 30,000 copies--and still sells 100 or so copies a week--has nothing at all to do with Elektra Records.
"One of the executives told me, in front of a bunch of people in the Elektra office, 'What the hell are you doing on Elektra Records?'" Miller remembers. "'You need to get off Elektra. They don't get you. Sylvia [Rhone, president of the Elektra Entertainment Group] doesn't get you. They'll never break you because they don't understand you or like you.' It freaked me out. I went home really shaken, really rattled, and I called Sylvia, and I said, 'What's the story?' And she said, 'Oh, baby, that's not true. We love you, and we're just waiting for the right thing to happen.' Since then, she and I talk on the phone, and everything's changed. It's great."
The exec who told Miller to get off Elektra is now gone from the label. The Old 97's are still there.
Which brings us to the present. In two years, the Old 97's relationship with Elektra has completely reversed. Fight Songs won't be released for another couple of weeks, but Elektra already has big plans for the album and the band. A song from the album, "19," is being used as the main song in the promotional campaign for the WB Network's Felicity. Another tune, "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)," is being aggressively promoted to radio programming directors. The label hears hits on the poppier Fight Songs; Elektra sees the dollar signs.
"Too Far to Care really scared as many people as embraced it," says Tom De Savia, senior director of A&R at Elektra, one of Miller's best friends in Los Angeles, and the man Hammond refers to as "the fifth 97." "This record, radio seems to really like. There's a lot of songs on there that radio feels they can play. We're going through the list, and we're finding all these radio guys who were huge fans of the band that just couldn't play it."
The initial reaction at radio has raised Elektra's already high opinion of the band. The label is so impressed with Fight Songs, it's arranging for Miller and Hammond to record a Ranchero Brothers album, to be released later this year, possibly on an indie label. And it's making a strong move to the hoop to get the band noticed--especially Miller. In the initial marketing plan for the album, the label says it "will begin to focus on Rhett Miller as a consummate songwriter. We feel he has the talent and charisma to stand out in a crowded field."
Fight Songs is good enough for that to happen, shiny pop wiping away the tears of Miller's lyrics. So it seems that Rhett Miller is finally on the threshold of stardom, close enough to touch it after coming up empty-handed so often. As he walks away from St. Mark's for the second time in a decade, he reflects on what kept him going for so long, when he was eating Ramen noodles and digging holes for the plumber while his classmates were living in comfortable homes with Ivy League diplomas on the walls. It wasn't the major-label record deals or the press clips after all. It was the music. Still is.