For Old 97’s songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Rhett Miller, a career which began in 1993 has brought with it a variety of highs and lows.
A number of the highs have come right here in Chicago, one of the first major markets the Dallas group was able to crack outside Texas, thanks to a ravenous audience soon fed by regular radio airplay on Chicago’s WXRT.
Upon signing with Chicago-based Bloodshot Records in 1995, Old 97’s recorded their second studio album Wreck Your Life in Wicker Park, performing frequently at venues like Double Door.
Since then, the group has referenced the Windy City in the lyrics of the 1997 classic “Barrier Reef” with Miller going on to name check Chicago in “The El,” a cut from his second solo album The Instigator in 2002.
“They liked us before any other town liked us. And we liked them,” said Miller of Chicago. “I feel like there’s something about Chicago that is just really authentic. And people are not afraid to be earnestly excited about whatever it is they’re doing. And, in the early days of our band, people were earnestly excited about our band in a way that made us think, ‘Maybe we could do this…'”
I spoke with Rhett Miller about returning to the stage this Sunday night at 8PM for a solo set at City Winery, cutting his teeth at Chicago venues like Delilah’s and Empty Bottle, a fond memory in Grant Park at WXRT’s free 4th of July concert and the writing process behind the group’s pointed 2010 track “Champaign, Illinois.” A partial transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.
Let’s start with the $64,000 question: What’s it been like getting back on stage in front of actual people this year?
RHETT MILLER: I’ve only played one night of solo gigs – an early show and a late show on April 2 in Manhattan. According to the New York Times, that was the first ticketed, live music event in Manhattan. And that was so strange. That was City Winery so they’re incredibly conscientious. They almost overdo everything with regards to the safety – which I was grateful for. I think it made me feel a little less trepidation about the reentry.
The 97’s have done a handful of dates in Texas. And that was really weird too. I don’t feel like I’ve done a show yet that felt like a real, proper show from the before times.
So I wonder what this is going to be like? I don’t know. I’m definitely looking forward to it.
Well, it’s quite a relationship now you’ve cultivated with the City Winery chain and certainly the Chicago venue in particular. What’s it like being able to finally get back to Chicago to play there again this Sunday?
RM: When I was first starting to do solo acoustic gigs, there was a place in Los Angeles called Largo. It’s still there in a newer incarnation. Now it’s a theater – but, at the time, it was a tiny little dinner theater/listening room. And then there was a place in New York City called Fez, which was a similar set up: dinner, tables, banquettes, listening room vibe.
When I was really young, that business model – the idea of people just, full stop, sitting down while I’m playing? No thank you. What am I old?
But, at a certain point, the idea of people sitting and listening at a comfortable table and having dinner and drinks, that just felt right. “This is cool. I can still rock out, I can still be loud and maybe there’s people that will get inspired to go stand up on the outskirts of the room and dance around if they need to.”
There’s just something so cool about the vibe of that kind of a listening room – it’s just so encouraging and safe feeling. And Michael Dorf and the folks at City Winery have been able to do that on a large scale. And now I’m able to go play rooms that feel like the best put together venues in America in Boston and Philly and D.C. and obviously in Chicago and New York and Nashville or Atlanta.
And it’s great. I know all the people in these places. The audience knows that they’re going to get a super good experience with great food. And they’ve figured out a business model that makes it so they can pay artists well. I’m really grateful for it.
It’s a long way from the first gigs I would do. I remember doing a gig in high school. And I had to wait around for the club owner to pay me on a school night. And I waited until like 2:30 in the morning. I think he just thought that I would leave and he wouldn’t have to give me the fifty bucks he had promised me – which, to me, seemed like the most money I was ever going to make. Finally, at 2:30 in the morning, he got pissed off and he came downstairs and he gave me fifty bucks in quarters. Yep.
From solo tracks like “The El” to Old 97’s cuts like “Barrier Reef,” Chicago has long been kind of a consistent character in the storytelling that defines your songs. What makes the city such a good backdrop or setting within your music?
RM: When we started the Old 97’s, we figured out that we had to get out of Dallas. Unlike Austin, Dallas, as a town, has a way of championing something that is the opposite of honest art. It’s a very commercial town. It’s a very money driven environment that we come from in Dallas. So we decided we had to get out of Dallas.
I-35 north, we would go through St. Louis. And Chicago very early on was the town that… I don’t know, they liked us before any other town liked us. And we liked them. And those long drives back down 35, we would try to figure out, “Why is Chicago so cool?”
At that point, we finally had been out to L.A. and New York. And what we settled on is that Chicago is the biggest city in America that isn’t full of itself.
New York and L.A. are both industry towns. They’re both chock-full of people that are making cool things. Chicago is too. But the folks in New York and L.A. tend to be really over it and jaded and cynical. I don’t mean to sh-t on them. I lived in both of those places and I love them. But I feel like there’s something about Chicago that is just really authentic. And people are not afraid to be earnestly excited about whatever it is they’re doing. And, in the early days of our band, people were earnestly excited about our band in a way that made us think, “Maybe we could do this…”
Then we signed to Bloodshot Records. We made a record in Wicker Park. All of the shows that we would do at the Double Door and the Empty Bottle climbing up and up to the Vic and the Riv. Boy do I love Thalia Hall right now. Obviously, the Metro – all of the great memories at the Metro. Yeah, I don’t know but there’s something really special about Chicago.
I announced a save the date for it, and the details will come out in the next few days, but I’m doing a songwriting retreat in Chicago on October 22, 23 and 24, 2021. Eventually, I’ll probably do them in a few different places. But I went back and forth. I looked at Woodstock, New York. I looked at doing one in Dallas. But, in the end, there’s something about Chicago. I really thought it was kind of a fun and meaningful place for me to ask fans, and aspiring songwriters who might want to learn from me, to go.
Chicago just felt like the right place. It’s just very creative.
Some might argue that the flip side of that would be Champaign, Illinois. I went to college in Charleston, IL which is about 40 minutes south of Champaign – which made Champaign, technically, “the big city” – which is, maybe, a little frightening. Listening to your song “Champaign, Illinois,” and noting its connection to Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” I’ve always been curious just how bad your experience in that town was that it led to that song…
RM: (Laughs) Oh, man… You know, I’ve felt bad over the years that I made a punchline out of Champaign!
Really, my thought process with it was… Do you remember the Richard Linklater movie Slacker? Growing up, Austin, TX was always that – a lot of artists but also just a lot of people that kind of got arrested around the time of college age. And they just wound up forever living in this weird sort of purgatory of being intellectuals, waking up at noon, walking down in their bathrobe to the local coffee shop and arguing about Kierkegaard or whatever.
So, to me, it wasn’t so much like being stuck in Champaign, IL was like being stuck in hell, it was more like being stuck in this purgatory, right? You can’t grow up – but you’re no longer a kid.
Whether it’s eating, performing or anything else, is there a fond memory in Chicago that sticks out?
RM: I remember an XRT 4th of July show in Grant Park. We’ve done a few of those now. But I think the very first one we ever did was – I can’t even remember – maybe 1999? And just looking out across that field full of people in this city where we had started at Delilah’s! We climbed up step-by-step through the venues and wound up getting to play in front of this field full of these really cool, happy young people. And it just felt like everything we had dreamed of.
I know that the business fell apart at a certain point, right around the time when the Old 97’s were peaking or whatever. The industry collapsed. So that idea of the brass ring – that idea of getting a million dollars or whatever – we had to make peace with that going away. But when you think about success, I don’t think it’s about a million dollars. I think it’s about feeling like you’ve done the thing that was your dream.
You had a vision: “I want to stand on a stage in front of all of these people and sing songs that I wrote and feel like we’re all in this together and they’re singing along and I’m dancing around and this is a dream come true.”
So Chicago has been really good over the years about making dreams come true for me and the Old 97’s.
Sunday, July 11, 2021
Doors open at 6PM
Show starts at 8PM
Tickets: $25 – $35
To purchase tickets, click HERE