Rhett Miller detours away from Old 97′s once more
Last week, Rhett Miller, who has fronted alt-country rockers Old 97’s since the mid-’90s, released The Dreamer, his fifth solo studio effort but his first-ever self-produced album. The 13-track disc is actually something of a radical departure for the transplanted Texan, who lives in New York these days. Whereas previous outings were more rock- and pop-oriented – a deliberate shift from his main group’s distinct Americana approach – his latest effort fuses all of Miller’s far-flung loves together with those impeccable instincts for roots music.
“It’s funny: Up until now,” he said in a recent phone chat, “I’ve been so concerned with delineating the difference between the two careers – the solo career and the band career – and I just kind of (feel) like the fans get it now. They know I do solo records and the band does our records.”
Miller noted that because the last Old 97’s albums – two volumes of The Grand Theatre, issued in 2010 and 2011 – had taken the Dallas-spawned outfit into garage-rock territory, he had the implicit freedom to do something dramatically different with The Dreamer.
“The band (Old 97’s) sounds so set and so far away from this idea that I had, of acoustic guitars and pedal steel and female harmonies, that while it could be classified at rootsy, I felt it was very different and nobody was going to get confused where one stopped and the other started.”
Early on, Miller, who has released a number of acclaimed albums both with Old 97’s and on his own, made the decision to produce The Dreamer himself, heading into Dreamland Studios in West Hurley, N.Y., in September 2011 to start work on it. Among the clear standouts this time is “As Close as I Came to Being Right,” a beautiful country duet he co-penned with legendary singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash.
“That was a big part of the beginnings of this record for me, was writing that song with her and realizing this is what I want the record to be like,” he explained. “We’d been introduced through mutual friends and kind of through Twitter, and got to know each other in the Twitterverse, which is kind of hilarious.”
Miller was soon delighted when he learned that Cash was open to collaborating: “So she sent me a verse – a short set of lyrics – and I took it and wrote a chorus and another verse, middle break, and sent it back to her the next day. And we had so much fun working on it and we got to record it, and it sounded so natural.
“The guitar player (Rich Hinman) when we made the demo for the song wound up being the pedal steel player on my whole record. I remember that session (and thinking): ‘This is what I want the record to be like.’ This real natural-sounding thing, lots of female vocals, a lot of nice guitar, pedal steel guitar. Something that’s organic and feels not like easy listening, but feels good.”
In addition to the aforementioned Cash and Hinman, other well-utilized players on The Dreamer include indie vocalists like Rachael Yamagata and Heather Robb (of NYC’s the Spring Standard), as well as keyboardist Joe McGinty (Nada Surf), veteran percussionist Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates) and Miller’s longtime touring band the Serial Lady Killers, featuring lead guitarist Tommy Borscheid, bassist Greg Beshers and drummer Angela Webster.
Few contemporary songwriters are capable of penning lyrics as wry and smart as Miller’s. He surrounds those tales in resonant arrangements and delivers each with potent firepower. The Dreamer is no exception, packed with inspired rockers (“Out of Love”), majestic ’60s Western-tinged stuff (“This Summer Lie”), traditional country fare (“Love Grows”) and piano-anchored folk-rock (“I’ll Try To”).
“I love to rock; I love a great guitar tone,” Miller said when praised for his almost uncanny ability to couple winning melodies with involving lyrics. “If a song has crummy lyrics, it’s a no-go for me.”