Solitary Refinement

Rhett Miller feeds multiple musical beasts from one well of inspiration

Miller, 35, came of age when Parton's "9 to 5" and Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" crowned the pop charts. Back then, he had little interest in country music, vintage or mainstream. "A few years ago, David Bowie — who is my idol — said he really likes all kinds of music these days ... except country and western." At first, Miller was crushed. Then he realized he'd often expressed identical sentiments. "There were times, growing up in Texas, where I thought, ÔIf I hear another stupid country song, I'm going to throw up.'"

He adds, "That is an acceptable cliche among youth: ÔI like all kinds of music but country,' because that's redneck music. And I agree with them. Because what they're talking about is the kind of country music that is popular now, which is crap, save for a few songs. They aren't talking about old country music, or Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash."

Miller spent his adolescence devouring Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, and Def Leppard. It was only after he discovered punk rock that cowpoke became safe to investigate. "I was obsessed with X, and that was how I ended up getting back into country," he says. "And rockabilly, too, thanks to the Cramps."

Rhett Miller gives his best bedroom eyes.
Mark Seliger
Rhett Miller gives his best bedroom eyes.


Performs on Monday, March 27 at 8 p.m.

Admission is $20



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Good songs are good songs, regardless of genre, and though Miller may straddle classifications, he knows that a pedal steel doesn't automatically bestow authenticity on a mediocre tune. "The most unfortunate music that could be categorized as country was made by a lot of the bands that opened for the Old 97's in the '90s," he recalls. "Groups who, just months before, had been a Screaming Trees cover band. And suddenly they were jumping on the bandwagon, highlighting the most embarrassing, awkward, honky-tonk, hayseed kind of country."

Age, marriage, and fatherhood have mellowed him, but Miller still admits to a few musical prejudices. "Right around when the Old 97's got signed to Elektra, someone said to me, ÔThe next big thing is either going to be altcountry or dance music.'" Six months later, Fat of the Land by the Prodigy entered the U.S. charts at No. 1. "I really begrudged the Prodigy their success," he admits.

Today, all bets are off. Miller's aversion to club fare has waned. "I came up with a lot of dance music around, like, The Look of Love by ABC. That album is such a guilty pleasure. My best friend in high school was gay, and we went out to a lot of gay bars. There was a lot of dancing going on, right when Dead or Alive's 'You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)' was huge."

Heck, maybe Chic's Nile Rodgers can produce Miller's next solo album; if it turns out a fraction as well as Rodgers' chart-topping work with David Bowie (Let's Dance) or the B-52's (Cosmic Thing), then Old 97's supporters would have legitimate cause for concern about a split. Until that day, they should just sit back and enjoy the extra bounty Miller's solo career affords them.

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