On ‘Twelfth,’ The Old 97’s Contemplate Ups And Downs Of 27-Year Career

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Rhett Miller of the Old 97's rocks the finish line festival following the St. Jude Rock 'n' Roll Seattle Marathon and 1/2 Marathon at Fisher Lawn on June 10, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images for Rock'n'Roll Marathon)
Rhett Miller of the Old 97's rocks the finish line festival following the St. Jude Rock 'n' Roll Seattle Marathon and 1/2 Marathon at Fisher Lawn on June 10, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images for Rock'n'Roll Marathon)

The new Old 97’s record is about survival.

Singer-guitarist Rhett Miller, bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples have been making music together for 27 years since forming the band in Dallas in 1993.

Their new music reflects the ups and downs of that journey, including Miller’s five years of sobriety and his bandmates’ health issues. “Twelfth” is the band’s 12th studio album, and it’s out this Friday.

Miller says much of this new album reflects a new incarnation of himself that came to be as he got sober. He says this new clarity prompted him to ask questions about who he is as an artist.

“Was I always just someone who was leaning on this crutch of, you know, I'm the party? I'm the life of the party. I'm bringing it. Let's sing about whiskey and weed, and this is what life is and fun is built on?” he says. “And maybe the hardest part of all of it was getting used to the idea that there is fun that can be had that doesn't involve passing out at the end of it.”

While he doesn’t consider himself “some giant advocate for sobriety,” Miller says his new music reflects his newfound love for himself.

“The terrifying thing, when people look at a life without whatever kind of substance they're dealing with, it's once you're on the other side, it's really a beautiful place to be,” he says. “And it's not as scary as you thought it was going to be.”

"Twelfth" comes out Aug. 21 on ATO Records. (Courtesy)
"Twelfth" comes out Aug. 21 on ATO Records. (Courtesy)

Interview Highlights

On the album cover featuring Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach

“Sports are something that my dad and I could talk about. And we weren't talking about why he didn't come home and we weren't talking about how I wasn't going to be the attorney he wanted me to be or the football player he wanted me to be. But we could sit down on a couch and we could watch Roger Staubach throw a 60-yard pass to Drew Pearson, and we could both agree that that was awesome.”

On the song “Belmont Hotel”

“The Belmont Hotel was a motor court style motel in the '50s in a neighborhood called Oak Cliff, where Stevie Ray Vaughan grew up coincidentally. But this motor court in the 1950s was not a fancy hotel, clearly. It was a motor court. Cut to the 1990s when the Old 97's were doing our first photo shoot. Some of our first band photos were taken in the parking lot of the old Belmont motor court. Then 15 years later, investors came in, bought the Belmont Hotel, and it's so beautiful now, Robin. It's this really cool, hip, artsy hotel with a view of the Dallas skyline.

“And I was staying there one time and it hit me as I looked out of the window onto the parking lot where my band had shot photos specifically because of how terrible it looked back then, and now it was so beautiful. I just started thinking about the metaphor of it. If you don't give up on something and if you put in the time and if you put in the work, you can take something that could easily be abandoned, like a band, like a marriage, and you can make it beautiful again. You can breathe life into it. And it just, it was really moving to me as just sort of an object lesson. And I was so surprised that my bandmates liked that song because it seemed like such a delicate little flower of a song, and they tend to go for the things that are more broad and muscular. But they did such a brilliant job of letting it breathe and letting it be this kind of beautiful, sweet moment in the middle of our album.”

On being together as a band for 27 years 

“That kind of a shared history, it's like a lifetime together. I'll be 50 years old, Sept. 6. And it's, you know, over half my life now, I couldn't have asked for better brothers. The life that we've shared has been so I don't know, rich and filled with adventure, and the fan base that we've cultivated over all these years, and we've never really stopped doing what we're doing. And we've got now kids that are named after members of our band. We've got generations come together to our shows — or they did. It's a whole world of people, and I really care about them. And it's been a really sweet, beautiful ride, and I'm pretty lucky. Not many bands stay together for 27 years, and I'm not exactly sure how we did it. But knock wood, thank goodness we have.”

On writing songs that people can sing back to him

“Once you've created it, you release it into the world and it goes into the lives, the minds, the hearts, the ears of people. And ideally, it kind of takes root there and it grows in them and becomes its own thing in their lives. And if they show up at my show and I look out and they're singing it back at me, it means that it's no longer mine, it's theirs, and they are giving it back to me. And that energy, honestly Robin, and that is the main thing I miss in all of this, is being able to go out and look at the people and congregate, come together with the people, and we're all singing together. I saw the list of the most dangerous things you could do to spread the virus, and at the top it was congregating in large groups and singing. I'm like, that's my job! So what do I do?”

Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd and Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on August 19, 2020.


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