Alt-country fans know Rhett Miller as the heartbreaker frontman of the Old 97's, one of a few groups that helped make the genre what it is today: music that fits just as well on a compilation of indie rock and Springsteen as it does on a mix of Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline.
Miller's always contended that the Old 97's are a rock band, even if they do sport a bit of country flair, and he's explored rock's poppier side on two critically lauded solo efforts, 2002's The Instigator and 2006's The Believer. Last week, Isthmus spoke with Miller, appearing Saturday at the Majestic Theatre, about his forthcoming solo album, his inner cowboy and why he might be confused with a silent-movie bandit who ties damsels to railroad tracks.
Isthmus: What's surprised you most about the new solo album so far?
Miller: I thought this album was going to be so quiet and acoustic, but it's got some of the most loud and rocking stuff I've ever done - and some of the most quiet and atmospheric stuff.
How does your approach to songwriting differ as a solo artist?
The Old 97's come with a certain set of rules I've figured out over the years. The solo stuff has no rules, so I can really do anything: pop, indie, different kinds of stories, you name it.
Is it possible to be in a rock band from Texas without people calling you either a cowboy or a country musician at some point?
Other bands, like my friends the Toadies, are from Texas but never got the cowboy-country label. [The Old 97's] definitely cornered a certain sound about 15 years ago that people were calling "insurgent country" at the time. I don't know if it would've been called that in Texas, but we were hanging around Chicago then, so we probably sounded more country than most people. There were a couple of records where we played this up, but by the time we got to [1996's] Wreck Your Life, I was like, "Who's that cowpoke singing those songs?" and we moved on.
Is your middle name really Ransom?
Yes, I'm named after my dad, so I'm Stewart Ransom Miller II. Technically, I should be Stewart Ransom Miller Jr., but thank god that didn't happen - I would've been called "Junior." I thought about calling my son Stewart Ransom Miller III but gave him a brand-new name since I figured he deserves a fresh start.