The Grand Theatre
"I just might get drunk tonight, and burn the nightclub down," Old 97's front man Rhett Miller sings on "Nightclub," from the Old 97's 1997 album Too Far to Care. In those days, that was textbook behavior for the Dallas-formed alt-country band's raucous, enthusiastic fans.
And although both band and fans may have moved up their bedtimes a little in the ensuing years, the 97's have been undergoing a renaissance lately, and are as potent a blend of punk rock and bluegrass's blazing speed, Anglophile pop smarts and unmistakable Texas twang as ever. It began with 2008's Blame It On Gravity, and both continues and intensifies on the brand-new The Grand Theatre, Volume One.
The 97's recorded the basic tracks for Theatre live at an old haunt, Dallas's Sons of Hermann Hall, before polishing them up in Austin. Front man Rhett Miller wrote all the songs on a solo tour of Northern Europe he did with Steve Earle last year. All except half of one, that is — the music for "Champaign, Illinois," which is really just Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" with new lyrics Miller devised on various late-night car rides and sat on for several years. Until one day...
"Dylan's manager [a friend of the 97's manager] said, 'We say no to this exact request 100 times a day out of hand. We don't say yes to anybody, but if it's really important I'll go to Bob,'" Miller says from his home in New York's Hudson Valley.
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Amazingly, Dylan approved.
"We were prepared to let him have 100 percent of the publishing, because it's essentially his song with new words," Miller says. "But he let us keep 50 percent of the publishing and let it be a co-write."
Chatter: Why did you decide to make a 97's record from these songs and not another solo album?
Rhett Miller: I knew I was gearing up for a 97's record when I was writing them, although I find that doesn't have much effect on the songs themselves. I tend to write whatever song I'm going to write that day, regardless of what I need to write it for.
I've found that the best way for me to solve the whole conundrum of what song goes where is just to give the Old 97's first dibs. They're my band. The reason I get to have a career in music is because of all the work we've done as a band, so I try and keep them happy.
C: How has your relationship with the other band members changed over the years?
RM: Really, it hasn't that much. We've always been up front with each other. There might have been a time when I was younger that I let myself get bossed around more, but I might even just be imagining that. I think there was a time when I felt less secure in my own position, and I would not stand up for stuff as much, but I also think I used to talk a lot more and be a lot more of an annoying-younger-brother type. Now I'm just a brother.
C: I have to say, I'm curious why there's nothing about Houston in...
RM: I know, in "State of Texas." I'm probably going to get grief from a handful of places (laughs). But I really wasn't trying to write a travelogue, I was trying to write from the heart. The whole first verse is kind of — Cedar Creek is outside of Dallas, Rhome throws back to an early song of ours, Austin [is where] I was born, and Dallas, I've got to talk about Dallas.
And then the second verse is all about girls, and the third verse sort of wraps everything up. Yeah, Houston didn't make the cut. Maybe I'll write a longer version of that song and throw in some extra verses.
C: You just didn't meet the right girl in Houston.
RM (laughs): Yeah.
C: Do you think about Texas differently now that you don't live there?
RM: Yeah, and that's sort of the point of that song. I wrote it while I was sitting in New York, and we had just gotten the call to headline this Texas Tourism Commission/"Texas on Tour" thing that we did. It was sweet. It was such a neat thing, that we've suddenly become these sort of ambassadors for the State of Texas.
I'm a seventh-generation Texan, born in Austin. I may not live there anymore, but I guess that's what the song is — in New York City, I'm saying that I'm living in "a state of Texas." Even if I don't live in Texas, I still feel very connected to it and proud of it. And baffled by its strangeness.
See more with Miller online at blogs/houstonpress.com/rocks.
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1. Neil Young, Le Noise
2. Black Angels, Phosphene Dream
3. Eric Clapton, Clapton
4. Jungle Rockers, Guns and Gold
5. The Walkmen, Lisbon
6. Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest
7. Sahara Smith, Myth of the Heart
8. Robert Plant, Band of Joy
9. Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
10. Justin Townes Earle, Harlem River Blues
1. Taio Cruz, "Dynamite"
2. Bruno Mars, "Just the Way You Are"
3. Enrique Iglesias, "I Like It"
4. Katy Perry, "Teenage Dream"
5. Usher feat. Pitbull, "DJ's Got Us Fallin' In Love"
6. Ke$ha, "Take It Off"
7. Nelly, "Just a Dream"
8. Flo Rida feat. David Guetta, "Club Can't Handle Me"
9. Far East Movement feat. The Cataracs
& Dec, "Like a G6"
10. Maroon 5, "Misery"
(lists compiled by Chris Gray)
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