Rhett Miller and his band Old 97’s hail from Texas. Yet, with songs set in Chicago’s Empty Bottle nightclub or others with titles such as “Champaign, Illinois,” and “Bloomington,” there often seems to be an Illinois connection.
Why so many Illinois songs?
“Funny you should ask,” says Miller. “We were playing a lot in Dallas but not really breaking through in any major way. I did a stint as a touring guitarist in a band called Killbilly that had befriended the folks at (Chicago’s) Bloodshot records. So when the Old 97’s started touring we made a beeline for Chicago. There’s something about that corridor. You go from Dallas to Chicago pretty easily. You stop in St. Louis on the way, maybe on the way there or back you stop in Champaign (or) maybe Bloomington.”
Miller says success in the Second City paid off for the band, which plays Wednesday at the Castle Theatre.
“That was our first (time) touring. And it really started to click in Chicago the way it wasn’t in Dallas. I would say that we owe at least the precocious timing of our career to the fabulous taste of the music fans in Illinois.”
Once Miller and the band hit the road there was no looking back. In the 25-plus years since, they’ve made a career touring and making records. But their lifeblood is on the road.
“In this kind of life, you have to work. In music in this era there’s no real money in recorded music and so you just go out and play gigs. Fortunately, I really love that. I do it as much as I can get away with.”
Even though Miller says he loves the traveling life, there is a downside to life on the road. This may be illustrated in the song “I Don’t Wanna Die in This Town,” from Old 97’s last album “Graveyard Whistling.”
“There was a story about Frank Sinatra in his later years having a minor heart event on stage in Richmond, Virginia,” said Miller. “The story—perhaps apocryphal—was that he ran offstage, jumped in the Town Car, and yelled at the driver, ‘Get me out of here! I don’t want to die in this town!’ That kind of feels like every day on this job. Just keep moving, keep moving. Like a shark, if you stop swimming you’ll die.”
Step on the gas, get out of here
I don’t wanna die in this town
Put it in the past in the rear view mirror
I don’t wanna die in this town
-from “I Don’t Wanna Die In This Town” by Old 97’s
Miller has, indeed, kept moving by adding even more dates to his itinerary. Between Old 97’s shows, he’s been playing songs from his latest solo effort “The Messenger,” an introspective album that touches on subjects less raucous than most of the Old 97’s catalogue.
“I got some advice pretty early on … I was told don’t write anything that’s too self-referential because it won’t be able to achieve a universality. This deep into a career I thought there was something to be said for ‘going there’ in a way that I really hadn’t before,” Miller said of songs that touch on the struggles of depression, self-doubt, and even suicide.
“It’s all about destigmatizing that conversation,” he said. “When I finally sat down to deal with my own history … I’d rather talk about that then let it be as shameful as it kind of has been over the years.”
Miller says he was led to contemplate his own history of depression, which included a teenage suicide attempt, by the death of one of his literary heroes: former Illinois State professor David Foster Wallace. The novelist Wallace committed suicide in 2005.
“How he get to that point? The incredible sadness that someone who was so brilliant could only see that as a solution. It’s just so hard to be a human being. Today’s world isn’t doing us any favors. The things that are supposed to bring us together are only making us feel more isolated,” Miller says. “I think about David Foster Wallace all the time. How much we lost when we lost him but also what a beautiful legacy he did leave us with a body of work that he did leave behind.”
The human condition is incurable
No one here gets out of here alive
These moments of transcendence are as close as we will get
I, for one, am happy we survived
-from “The Human Condition” by Rhett Miller
Miller adds that opening up about depression and mental health was also prompted by an urge to communicate with his now-teenage children. Even though he can, and does, connect with them when he is away from home with an ever-present smartphone, he says his is mindful of the way the digital age both binds us and separates us.
“Technology sort of freaks me out. Every night I sing these (older) songs and the only details in the lyrics that that have aged in a really weird way to me (are) details about telephones.”
Telephones make strangers out of lovers
Whiskey makes the strangers all look good
Well my angel of the morning is in mourning
My life was misspent, don't let me be misunderstood
-from “Niteclub” by Old 97’s
“Now there’s a whole other way that telephones can make strangers out of you,” Miller says. “You could be lying in bed next to each other but you’re a million miles away because you’re both just sucked into your feed, looking at everybody else’s pictures.”
Even though Old 97’s play plenty of older material with references to pay phones and time and temperature lines, they are equally filling the set list with songs written and released in the last few years.
"Graveyard Whistling" was released in 2017, the solo album "The Messenger" in 2018, and Miller says he is currently writing songs for the band’s upcoming to return to the studio.
“I think that one of the unintended benefits of never having broken through on a larger scale is that we never got pinned to a specific time or a specific era,” Miller says. “We get to keep making records and we never have to become a nostalgia act. I’d like to keep making music and I hope that it keeps appealing to our listeners.”
The Old 97's play Wednesday at the Castle Theatre in Bloomington.
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