These days, Rhett Miller seems a bit more tired than usual. His day job as lead singer of the Old 97's has collided with his summer moonlighting as its solo opening act. It's a concert that keeps Miller onstage for an almost Springsteen-ian three hours and causes him to be 10 minutes behind on interviews.
"It's a long and taxing night," says Miller groggily. "Murry [Hammond, Miller's bandmate] does 30 minutes, I do 30 minutes, and then the Old 97's play for a couple of hours. It's OK though, I like it, and I get paid to do it for a living."
Miller is used to having his endurance tested. For the past 16 years and seven studio albums, he and his band have driven home their brand of country-tinged, three-chord rock that leaves audiences breathless worldwide. These days, the band is a finely tuned performance machine that runs and sounds like a million bucks, a fact made evident by their latest album, Blame it on Gravity.
"I think the band is in a really good place," says Miller. "This album took a while to make, but we never felt bogged down by it. It was a great feeling all the way through."
As a solo artist, Miller has released an additional four albums, including his latest self-titled record. Asked to compare his solo work with the Old 97's output, Miller slowly and deliberately explains why he feels the need for extracurricular activities.
"I don't think I could be in the band if I knew I couldn't make solo records," he says. "Every solo record is a chance for me to do weird stuff that the band won't let me get away with."
Through it all, Miller and his fellow Old 97's continue to put forth a high-octane, rootsy blend of rock 'n roll and country. But don't call it alt-country. For Miller, the tag is a mixed blessing.
"I've had to deal with [the alt-country tag] for so long, and obviously it's annoying in a lot of ways. It's reductive and it doesn't take into account all of our influences. But at the same time, it helped us coming up and gave people an 'in' so they could discover our band. So I can't hate it, but at the same time it gets old."
And while the Old 97's have retained their popularity with the No Depression set, their music clearly steps outside the traditional perceptions about the alt-country genre.
"All of the great bands that came out in the '60s, '70s and '80s weren't labeled alt-country, [but] if Tom Petty came out today he'd be labeled as alt-country," figures Miller. "The Beatles were a freakin' skiffle band — are they alt-country?"
But instead of spending much time worrying about labeling, the Old 97's are more concerned with the music itself. In a live setting, the band's deceptively simple sound becomes revelatory. This is perfect music for an imperfect world, and that's exactly what Miller envisions.
"We never wanted to be a bar band that had no substance, but at the same time we want people to go out and bond with each other, to be stupid, to dance and to make out," he says. "That's my job."
Old 97's video for "Dance With Me"