Rhett Miller, the 46-year-old lead singer and songwriter of Dallas' favorite rock band the Old 97's, is a jubilant showman on stage. But when it comes to assessing his band's current standing after over 20 years of making records in an ever-changing business climate, he's more matter-of-fact.
"It's nice to be where we're at now, and I think experience has made us better, at least that's what I want to believe," Miller says over the phone from his home in New York, where he's preparing for his group's lengthy tour.
"There was a time when we were all frustrated. We rode out the collapse of the music industry, and it was disheartening to watch it happen because we each made career choices that defined our lives based upon the idea we could make a decent living playing music."
On Feb. 24, the Old 97's 11th studio record, Graveyard Whistling, will be released, and it's packed with tunes that could only come from an assured group of rock 'n' roll lifers who've soundly beaten the odds. Not only are the four original members still playing together, but Miller, Murray Hammond, Ken Bethea and Philip Peeples are cranking out the best music of their careers at this point.
It's fair for Miller to take a logical look back on his time in music. He and his mates have flirted with the kind of fame most dream of and have unquestionably achieved a level of success most musicians envy. Such a rollercoaster ride means Miller knows a thing or two about going from surviving to thriving.
"There was a bit of angst and things were difficult in our band for a time around when we recorded [2004's] Drag it Up," Miller admits. "It was the toughest time we had as a band as we got used to the new world of the music industry and being in a band where the lead singer makes solo records. But since that point, we've been on an upward trajectory. The rub between art and commerce hasn't been an issue for us."
On 2014's Most Messed Up, the band went into a reckless, foul-mouthed direction where sex, booze and general hard-living blended with rocking, roadhouse arrangements.
On this latest album, the 97's successfully weave galloping rhythms with what Miller says is a "pedal steel-influenced spaghetti western desert sound" and lyrics that dig into some pretty dark and sad themes.
"I don't know if it's a rule we have or a trick we use," he explains, "but we always think about mixing the sad with the upbeat."
"It drives me crazy when someone goes on stage, sings a sad song with dim lights and makes everyone shut up so they can hear how sad he is. I don't want people to feel unhappy when they hear me sing about me being unhappy."
Since the band's 2008 record, Blame it On Gravity, it's clear Miller and the gang have fully embraced the alt-country style they helped popularize in the '90s. Though they've proven they can excel in more straight-forward rock directions, the past few records have proven they are going to travel into any direction they please and let others worry defining their sound.
"Thankfully, the question of what kind of band we were stopped mattering to us," Miller says. "I know that I stopped chasing the alt-country label as a songwriter, which helped me to stop feeling so self-conscious. Because we've become a known quantity, I think people aren't trying to define us as much."
Indeed, people are still enjoying the Old 97's in impressive numbers.
Late-night television appearances, national radio airplay, a cross-country tour and a popular festival are all healthy signs of a band that has plenty of life left.
"I dropped out of college after one semester, even though I had a full-ride scholarship," Miller admits. "I thought you were forced to stop playing rock 'n' roll when you turned 30, but thank God that's not the case."