The Old 97’s Rhett Miller Forges Life Between Rock Star & Family Man

Photograph by Jao Canziani

When Rhett Miller was in his early twenties, fresh from abandoning a full scholarship at Sarah Lawrence to play rock & roll and live in "abject squalor" in Dallas, Texas, he didn't have a particularly clear picture of life after 30. Most days were spent at home with a bass-playing roommate who ate nothing but mayonnaise. "Honestly, I thought I'd probably die," Miller says, sounding cheerful. "I mean, the mythology, the end of that story, is that you die or you just retire to an island that you purchase, so those are your two options."

On a sunny afternoon in early April, Miller is sitting at a rustic kitchen table in his cozy four-bedroom house in New York's rural Ulster County, a 90-minute drive from Manhattan. Behind him, an acoustic guitar leans against a cabinet filled with glassware, plates, and figurines. He's made it to 43 now, after spending more than two decades as lead singer for the roots-rock foursome Old 97's, who never became superstars but never gave up, either: "We've been doing this longer than you've been alive," he sings with bemused pride on a new song. "And they still let me do it, weird as it seems."

There's a basketball hoop in the driveway and a swimming pool in back. He has three housemates these days: his wife, Erica — a former model who was once on the cover of Sassy — and their two pre-teen kids. Miller has an itchy, untrimmed beard at the moment, the product of a whimsical promise to his son not to shave on his last tour. He's wearing a blue button-front shirt the same way he does onstage: rolled up at the sleeves and open nearly halfway down his tanned torso. Though he's had his share of whiskey and weed on the road, he's a bookish, introspective version of a rock star — his heroes include Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace, and his speaking voice and manner are nearly Mr. Rogers–like in their gentleness.

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Miller is still baby-faced, if not quite as pretty as in the Nineties, when his status as alt-country's only decent-looking dude somehow led Playgirl to offer him a spread (he declined). "I had one manager I fired years ago who said, ‘You've got about one more record to be cute,' " says Miller. "At the time, I remember feeling, ‘Well, fuck you, I'm going to be cute for a long time!' And then I thought, ‘Well, I need to start not even letting that be a part of the equation.' " He's almost comfortable imagining a time when he looks "like an old dude," though the example he cites is the eternally handsome Kris Kristofferson.

His mayonnaise-eating buddy, the now silver-haired Murry Hammond, is still around too, as the bass player in Old 97's, who just released their 10th studio album, Most Messed Up. The band is scattered around the country these days, a bunch of dads who periodically come together to play strummy, beer-sticky rock. They've long outlived their old genre, and their persistence has landed them in the music industry's ever-shrinking middle class: Despite plateauing commercially in the early 2000s, around the time they parted ways with their major label, they can still sell out medium-size theaters across the nation. Miller's friend Tommy Stinson, bassist for the Replacements and Guns N' Roses, calls the band's longevity an anomaly. "They've eked out a decent little living," Stinson says. "There's not a lot of musicians I know who can say that right now. But Rhett is a great songwriter, and they seem to do well by just being consistent and keeping out there."

"We were grandfathered in by our years in the old system," says Miller, who also does solo tours with just his guitar and some merch — no road manager. "Elektra Records spent millions of dollars creating a brand that I still get to utilize."
Most Messed Up is one of the band's best albums: It feels like the right kind of midlifecrisis LP, all defiant thrash and fuck-laced lyrics. "How can one not feel a certain element of midlife crisis," asks Miller, "when you're 43 years old and make a living out of shaking your ass? I'm trying not to let it be a crisis, to just let it be a thing. . . . It's weird being 43 and having two kids. I liked it in my twenties when I had nobody attached, nobody dependent. I liked the idea of being able to do whatever I want, stay up as late as I want. But would I trade it in? No. My family's pretty great."

Some songs, like "Guadalajara" — a tale of a middle manager's affair with a "holiday girl" — seem like they would require a little bit of discussion at home. "Everybody who does what I do has to make a deal with their significant other," says Miller. "Like, ‘Look, I write songs, and they're somewhat autobiographical, and they're somewhat made up, and you can't really explain them.' I frequently come to the end of a song and think, ‘Oh, shit, I'm going to have to play this for my in-laws.' But my in-laws love my songs that are about debauchery."

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Another, more personal song, "Wasted," includes the line, "They might think I wasted my life/They're wrong." The "they" in question are kids Miller went to prep school with in Dallas. Miller came from a "solidly middleclass" family, with a lawyer father, but his classmates were "a lot of, like, upper-crusty kids, of which I was not one, who have gone on to become big-shot lawyers and doctors and hedge fund people."

To a sensitive, artistic teen who was shattered by his parents' divorce, those kind of careers never seemed like options. When he was 14, in fact, he decided to avoid any kind of future, making a very serious attempt at suicide. "I was kind of beat up a lot," he recalls. "I was getting called ‘faggot' a lot because I appeared effeminate to jocks. The decision, as much as it was a decision, was a very existential one. I remember clearly thinking, ‘Oh, this is it: The only reason we're here is just to collect these tchotchkes, place them around our house, look at them while we age, and then die.' "

So he swallowed a Big Gulp cup full of lamp oil, and then various other poisons, and a bunch of sleeping pills — more than enough to kill him. "It should have worked," he says. He survived only because of a series of lucky breaks: The lamp oil coated his stomach, preventing the other stuff from being digested, and the hospital happened to induce vomiting instead of pumping his stomach. "I woke up the next morning with the bizarre sensation of being alive. Like, what? You're kidding me!"
Now, he says, "I'm glad it didn't work. I mean, maybe that's a stupid thing to say, but I'm glad, and I wish I'd known at the time that there's more than just what seems like such bullshit, you know? The whole Holden Caulfield phoniness is real, you know? And the world is so full of it. But there is something else beyond that — where there is meaning and sweetness and depth and truth and beauty that transcends, or at least makes up for, the phoniness."

Miller takes me through the finished basement — where his kids have been making music of their own — and into his office: a dark, red-walled closet-size space off his garage, where he can get enough peace to write some songs. His wife's old Sassy cover hangs in one corner, and there are various books around — a signed Kurt Vonnegut novel, a biography of Elliott Smith, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Miller has published a couple short stories. "My dream is to segue into writing novels," he says. "That was always my goal."

It's nice to have this office, but he doesn't really need it. "I used to have to write every night alone in a certain place," he says. "Now I can write with my kids in the room, running around, yelling. I can write with the TV on. I can write in the back lounge of the tour bus — because I have to. Not only because I need the songs for the next album, but because I have to." He smiles. "It's what I do."

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