Texas native Rhett Miller is perhaps best known as the frontman of the Dallas-based alt-country band the Old 97’s, although he has also pursued a critically acclaimed solo career. Formed in 1993, the Old 97’s built a devoted following with their brash blend of country and power pop influences, making a splash with 1995’s Wreck Your Life, which won the group a brief stay on the roster of Elektra Records, a period kicked off with one of their finest hours, 1997’s Too Far to Care. All four members also pursued side projects, but Miller’s solo career captured the most attention, with the literate songwriter training his eye on such subjects as fatherhood, sex, and love. Making his solo bow with 2002’s The Instigator, most of Miller’s solo albums have been dominated by cool, melodic pop tunes with a drier and more confessional bent than his work with the band, though 2012’s The Dreamer explored a middle ground between his pop and alt-country sensibilities, and the 2011 set The Interpreter: Live at Largo revealed he’s a sure hand with other people’s songs.
Strictly speaking, Miller launched his own career before the Old 97’s were formed. He recorded his first solo album, a series of acoustic folk songs entitled Mythologies, in 1989. Future Old 97’s bassist (and a solid songwriter in his own right) Murry Hammond produced the album, and their partnership later blossomed into a full-fledged band. While releasing a string of well-received albums with the Old 97’s, Miller and Hammond also performed together as the Ranchero Brothers, a two-man acoustic duo that was originally launched as a means of testing new music for the Old 97’s in front of a live audience. The Ranchero Brothers developed their own distinct following, although no albums resulted from the project.
Taking time off from the Old 97’s, Miller began recording his first major-label solo effort in February 2002, this time with the help of producer/multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion. The Instigator appeared nearly seven months later, followed by a tour with ex-Crowded House frontman Neil Finn in early 2003. Miller then returned to the studio with the Old 97’s, squashing worried rumors that he planned to halt the band’s career and focus on his solo efforts. He did, however, find time to balance the two projects, and his second solo release, The Believer, was issued by Verve in February 2006.
After returning to the studio with the Old 97’s for 2007’s Blame It on Gravity, Miller continued his juggling act by recording another solo album. The self-titled record appeared in 2009 courtesy of his new label, Shout! Factory. His next two solo albums, 2010’s The Interpreter: Live at Largo and 2012’s The Dreamer, were both released by Miller’s own Maximum Sunshine label. After releasing one of the Old 97’s’ strongest albums in years with 2014’s Most Messed Up, Miller took a new turn in his solo career with 2015’s The Traveler, which featured backing from the band Black Prairie (which includes several members of the Decemberists) and a guest appearance from Peter Buck of R.E.M. Following more recording and touring with the Old 97’s, Miller repaired to Brooklyn, New York, where he cut the 2018 album The Messenger with producer and multi-instrumentalist Sam Cohen, who previously worked with Apollo Sunshine and Yellowbirds. The album was released by ATO Records.
The latest full-length from Rhett Miller, The Misfit, exists in an enchanted dimension all its own. With its elegant blurring of psychedelia, dream-pop and electronic-leaning indie-rock, the Texas-bred singer-songwriter’s ninth solo effort emerged from a charmed collaboration with his Hudson Valley neighbor Sam Cohen, the sought-after producer known for his work with innovators such as Kevin Morby and Danger Mouse. And while the album often wanders into decidedly cosmic terrain, Miller grounds each track with the vulnerable songwriting and unaffected vocal presence he’s brought to his role as frontman for legendary alt-country band Old 97’s for the last three decades. The result is a body of work fully attuned to the tension of modern times, yet imbued with all the lovely delirium of a dreamscape.
About The Dreamer CD and LP, signed by Rhett Miller
(LP includes a download card good for a digital copy of the album.)
With The Dreamer, Old 97’s front man Rhett Miller explored his down-home roots, turning to acoustic instrumentation and country style to build an album that reminds listeners where he’s from. Right from the jaunty shuffle and rolling piano of "Lost Without You," Miller establishes a twangier sound than his other solo outings. "Swimmin’ in Sunshine," with its bright, sweeping pedal steel, continues the trend, while "As Close As I Came to Being Right," a duet with Rosanne Cash, provides some sweet melancholy.
The Dreamer was Miller’s first studio album to be released on his own label Maximum Sunshine Records, and the first to be produced by Miller himself. There’s a timelessness to this collection, and it’s easily his best and most consistent solo work to date. The Dreamer is also an album that calls for multiple spins. It’s just good. A big part of that is the return of singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata, whose go-to vocals have appeared alongside artists like Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes and Ray Lamontagne.
Miller also taps The Spring Standards’ Heather Robb and country royalty Rosanne Cash to match him almost line for line. Those added vocal layers are effective, too, adding warmth to already comfy tunes. The gentle instrumentation pairs well with Miller’s lyrics, which are less about clever turns of phrase this time around, and more about conveying pure sentiment. Opener "Lost Without You" is another in Miller’s collection of sad-sack character studies, with the refrain, "You weren’t like the rest till you left" (not to mention my favorite line: "She was glowing like an open sign on a place I’d never tried").
The Dreamer is Miller’s first LP funded with the help of a successful PledgeMusic campaign that earned nearly double its target. That statistic, if you will, illustrates Old 97’s fans’ loyalty to the band and its prolific frontman. The resulting album—minus labels and other outside influences—shows Miller is less concerned about expanding his audience as he is pleasing the one he’s nurtured over the past two decades. More importantly, Miller is doing it for himself.
As the lead singer with the Old 97's, Rhett Miller sings spunky, uptempo alt-country tunes with a pleasing Texas twang in his voice, while the Rhett Miller who makes solo albums makes smart pop music with an arty edge. The big surprise in The Dreamer is this is the first Miller solo album where he's willing to let his country influences hold sway; this is a very different sort of roots-oriented music than the Old 97's, built on acoustic instruments and subdued tempos that suggest folk-rock more than the get-up-and-go mood of his band, but the guy singing is clearly the Rhett Miller on Too Far to Care rather than The Believer, as if his twin personalities have finally found common ground.
Miller hasn't tossed away his slicker pop sensibilities; he's just allowed them to shake hands with his naturally twangy self, and songs like "Picture This," "This Summer Lie," and "Out of Love" are of a piece with Miller's solo work, only with arrangements that sound considerably more organic and less fussy (and with occasional interjections of steel guitar). And though "Lost Without You," "Sleepwalkin'," and "Swimmin' in Sunshine" might have felt a little too low-key in the context of an Old 97's album, they sound fine here, confirming that Rhett Miller is a first-class songwriter when his muse is with him regardless of generic restraints.
Miller's duet with Rosanne Cash on "As Close as I Came to Being Right" is a gem, one of the best realized moments of his solo career; it's the best thing on The Dreamer, but there's plenty of other music here that should earn the approval of fans of both Rhett Millers.