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On the road again 

Rhett Miller puts an Old 97's classic back in service

Not content with their recent jaunt backing The Grand Theatre, Volumes One and Two, Texas twangsmiths the Old 97's have launched something delightfully unexpected: A Too Far to Care 15th Anniversary Tour, wherein they're playing their classic cowpunk album in all its Duane Eddy-inspired glory.

Why? Blame their longtime booking agent Kevin French, chuckles bandleader Rhett Miller.

"Because he loves the record so much, he said, 'Twenty years is kind of a long time — why don't we do a fifteenth anniversary celebration of that album?' And it made sense, it felt right. It's been really cool to play that record again, top to bottom. I was transported right back to that time, the halcyon days. No, wait — wrong term. Call it our salad days!"

In the years since, Miller matured into an American Songbook-studious craftsman, both with the Old 97's and on five solo discs, including this year's The Dreamer (issued on his own Maximum Sunshine label), which he'll be touting as the 97's opening act. Lately, he's also been busy writing his first novel and formulating his own podcast.

Back then, though, Miller was on fire, a snarky young showboater who penned clever lyrics with brash aplomb. As in "Barrier Reef," where he brags, "I sidled up beside her, settled down, shouted 'Hi there' / 'My name's Stuart Ransom Miller, I'm a serial lady killer' / And she said, 'I'm already dead.'" (And yes, in case you were wondering, "Ransom" really is Miller's middle name). In a chugging "House That Used to Be," he also managed to pair Quaalude with corkscrewed, freight trains with great danes, and spit curl with showgirl, although he now admits that he used a rhyming dictionary to do it, just for fun.

In fact, Too Far to Care is one of those rare rock masterpieces that continues to hold up, even 15 years down the road. From the opening blast of "Timebomb" (penned about a stalker who followed Miller from Dallas to Los Angeles) to the closing duet with Exene Cervenka, "Four Leaf Clover," it overflows with campy, careening observations, sung in Miller's warm, whiskeyed drawl. Naturally, there's a deluxe reissue on the way, with equally inventive bonus tracks like the Opal cover "Northern Line," a take on Homer Henderson's "Beer Cans," and Miller's own "Holy Cross." "That's my mom's favorite song," notes Miller. "I can't believe we left it off the record."

So what was buzzing around Miller's head back then? The singer-songwriter recalls how his band had just done a yearlong tour backing its breakthrough sophomore disc, Wreck Your Life — which was reissued in 2009 with extra material — and had wrapped the South By Southwest showcase that spurred a bidding war. For three months, they were wined and dined by countless A&R heavies in L.A. and New York.

"We felt very free and confident, like the world was whatever we wanted it to be," he recalls.

Miller chuckles at his youthful temerity. He's harsher on himself and his work these days, he says. "I don't let myself be quite as silly. But Too Far to Care does capture lightning in a bottle, the sound of a band just figuring out how to make records. And best of all? The track listing on it is like a perfect set list!"

scene@csindy.com

  • Rhett Miller puts an Old 97's classic back in service

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