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Continually Inspired

After almost 14 years away, the Old 97's return to Tucson with their lineup intact

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Tucson's last glimpse of the Old 97's came when the band had a freshly released Elektra Records debut that was soaking up critical acclaim—as well as a live show bursting with cow-punk energy.

In September 1997, the Dallas quartet seemed ready to break into the big time and had earned a somewhat incongruous opening slot for Social Distortion at the now-defunct eastside club The Cage.

"I remember that gig was rough," says singer-guitarist Rhett Miller. "All these Social D fans were just giving us the finger the whole time. Isn't that crazy that was 14 years ago?"

Despite continued modest success, no big hits ever came for the Old 97's. Instead, the band simply kept playing its pioneering blend of garage rock, honky-tonk and power pop, night after night over 17 years and nine studio albums.

"The 97's are playing to bigger audiences than we have in 10 years, or ever, in a lot of markets. To be in a band that's still on an ascendant arc after nearly 20 years, we're doing something right," Miller says.

Miller says Jon Brion, who produced his solo album The Instigator, introduced him to a quote (sometimes attributed to Alex Chilton or Elvis Costello, though its exact origins are unknown): "I don't know; they all sound like hits to me."

"That's what I feel like. I could have pulled seven songs from each of our records, and they could have been played every day on the radio," Miller says.

One of the pillars of 1990s alt-country, the Old 97's is pretty much the only band among those peers left standing. Even more remarkable is the fact that the band's lineup has been the same since it started more than 17 years ago.

"The 97's still have the raw garage-band feel that we started with," Miller says. "None of us have blossomed into such outstanding musicians that we're bored playing this simple stuff we play. We've all gotten better so that we can do things that pop into our minds easily, but we let our band be what it is, and the experience has been good for us."

The Old 97's formed after Miller and bassist Murry Hammond broke up their old band, Sleepy Heroes, and joined with guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples. The band released a debut, Hitchhike to Rhome, that attracted Chicago's Bloodshot Records. After one more album, the band signed to Elektra, which thought alt-country could be the new grunge. Though they were dropped during industry consolidation, the band found a home on New West Records.

The band's newest work—last year's The Grande Theatre, Volume One, and its companion second volume, slated for release on July 5—are the result of a creative renewal that began when Miller was touring Europe as a solo act opening for Steve Earle. The shift in perspective was fruitful, and Miller spent much of his nonperforming time writing songs.

"I came back from this trip to Europe with Steve Earle, and I had 22 or 23 songs I thought were good for the Old 97's. I thought we would whittle it down to 12 or 13, but none of them weren't working. They all sounded good," Miller says.

The Grand Theatre title points to pre-production rehearsals, with the band playing Miller's new songs live in the century-old (and, of course, haunted) Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas.

Playing and writing in old theaters across Scandinavia and the United Kingdom inspired Miller to think about the nature of performing and acting, and it's a theme that runs through both volumes of The Grand Theatre.

"There's something about being in the dressing rooms of these theaters, which were usually hundreds of years old. I don't necessarily believe in ghosts ... but I do really believe in the collective unconsciousness. I sit in a place like that, and I can feel the history, all these characters who have been there," he says.

"(Acting) seems like it's just something that happens in the theater, but it's something we all do all the time. It's part of life. We're all playing these parts and trying to balance what is us and what belongs to others."

Songwriting itself is a different process these days for Miller, 40. What used to come late at night, kind of drunk, is now a much calmer effort. "In the past, it was writing from a well of sadness; now it's more something I go to visit, not something I dwell in," Miller says.

"It was this really fraught state when I was younger. Now I can sit in a crowded room with the whole family running around and write a song. ... It's good that I don't have to be miserable to write a song."

Still, Miller remains drawn to the type of songs that capture that same feeling.

"Most songs I really love are when somebody is freaking out. I think that honestly holds true for a lot of media, a lot of different types of art. My favorite short stories are when the protagonist is going through something very hard, and feeling thwarted and sad," he says. "I could write topical stuff about the state of our nation, but I care about those moments between people that are so incomprehensible. It's such a tough thing for people to connect, and once they've connected, to hold it together."

As for why his band has been able to hold it together for so long, Miller says he's continually inspired by the music they make together.

"I'm hardwired to think that each record is the best thing we've ever done. With both of these records, we felt like we've outdone ourselves," he says.

Now that the band has to leave behind wives and children to tour, performing also matters more than ever.

"It's one thing to be 23 years old and pulling into Tucson with nothing else in the world," he says. "Your whole job and your whole reason for existing is to convince these 500 people that this is the greatest night of their lives. Then it becomes a different thing when you've done it 10,000 times. It's tough, and you have to dig down deep every night, but I love that challenge."

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