Since their first gigs in Dallas a quarter century ago, the Old 97's have experienced plenty of peaks and valleys. That they've remained united, without any lineup change for the entire time, while continuing to win enthusiastic reviews and sell out shows across the country is nothing short of remarkable.
A flurry of new projects from the band and its lead singer and songwriter, Rhett Miller, offer a glimpse into why one of the pioneering groups of the late '90s oft-called "alt-country movement" is as fresh and vibrant today as ever.
The band releases its first holiday album, Love the Holidays, on Nov. 16, on the heels of Miller's new solo album, The Messenger. Next year, the lead singer is releasing a his first book of poetry, making it abundantly clear the Old 97's aren't too old to keep trying new things.
"Writing songs for the holiday record was a giant challenge," says Miller over the phone from his home in New York's Hudson River Valley. "I ended up writing songs about love and relationships, but set during Christmastime."
Recorded in Dallas and produced by local musician John Pedigo of The O's, the holiday collection is predominantly original tunes, with just one cover of "Auld Lang Syne." (The CD version includes four bonus tracks of Christmas classics including "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Blue Christmas"). True to form, a couple of the new songs, though not genuine covers, are imaginative variations of beloved tunes, made unique by Miller's vision. The revved-up, tree-rockin' "Gotta Love Being a Kid (Merry Christmas)" co-written with author Ben Greenman, is "our Christmas version of the Ramones 'We're a Happy Family,'" Miller says.
The Old 97's celebrate the release with a Holiday Hoopla concert at the Statler hotel on Dec. 29.
The holiday concept isn't the only new element Miller is adding to his band's repertoire. Inspired by the writings of Kurt Vonnegut and the Cold War-era "Do You Hear What I Hear," a musical plea for peace that's become a Christmas staple, the ethereally gorgeous "Snow Angels" is Miller's first ever foray into commenting on the explosive socio-political nature of modern society.
"We wanted to write a Christmas song that addressed the divisiveness of our times," he says. "That's crazy for me, because as a songwriter, I've never encountered a challenge more outside of my comfort zone because I've never put any real political commentary into any song."
The Messenger is Miller's seventh solo studio album and the most sonically distinctive of the lot. There's a reason listeners get something different from Miller's work versus the Old 97's: The songs on The Messenger were rejected by his bandmates, Miller says. Though still as approachable as any of the singer's work, the album often feels whimsically experimental and psychedelic in the face of songs dealing with insecurity and doubt. It's the latest example of how an artist, and a band, can grow and change while firmly retaining its identity.
"I've always made an effort to make my solo records sound different than what we do in the Old 97's," he says. "But one of the cool things I've found is that the 97's sound has evolved to where my solo records will often revisit, the sounds the band has left in its wake, like quieter stuff or songs with fiddle or pedal steel from our earliest days."
Miller's upcoming poetry collection, entitled No More Poems!, might look like a substantial left turn. Filled with what the book's publisher Little, Brown and Company calls "irreverent poems for modern families," the father of two admits he stumbled into the project naturally thanks to his role as an artistic dad on the go.
"My kids are now 12 and 14, but I started writing poems a while back when I'd be on the road a lot and really missing them," he says. "For them, talking on the phone all the time with dad can be really lame, and at home we had always bonded by me reading Shel Silverstein or Roald Dahl to them. Then we'd talk about the narrator or the unspoken truth behind the poem. I started coming up with dumb little poems to engage with my kids over Facebook while I was on the road. They can be brutal critics, but they're really sweet, too, and their primary reason for engaging with me was to break the poems down and help me make them better."
Throughout his career, Miller has received numerous praises for his poetic take on songwriting. This new resume bullet point isn't the stretch it first seems to be.
"It's only a few degrees removed from what I do as a songwriter," he says.
Whether it's a band record covering uncharted thematic terrain, a solo record producing unfamiliar sounds, or a completely green narrative format, Miller tackles the new by keeping it old school.
"I'm just telling a story with rhyme and meter," he says.
Rhett's Miller's The Messenger is out now and the Old 97's Love the Holidays is out on Nov. 16, both from ATO Records. No More Poems! is scheduled to be released in March 2019 via Little, Brown and company. The Old 97's Holiday Hoopla concert is on Dec. 29 at the Statler Ballroom in Dallas. Information can be found by visiting www.old97s.com.