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Rhett Miller and the Old 97s

We Are Upstate NY With Alt-Country Rocker Rhett Miller

By Sal Cataldi | August 1, 2023

Many critics mark the birth of Americana music to the summer of 1967 and a little pink house in West Saugerties where Bob Dylan and The Band’s experiments yielded that motherload of tuneful known as The Basement Tapes. The Hudson Valley is also home to one of the widely acknowledged originators of that cousin to the Americana genre, alt-country.  The local-based pioneer in question is longtime New Paltz resident Rhett Miller.

The Austin-born and Dallas-reared Miller launched his musical career at a tender age – picking up the guitar at 12, writing his first songs and 13 and recording his debut solo album while still in high school.  Miller may be best known for a large body of work with Olds 97’s. The quartet, powered in large part by Rhett’s inexhaustible songwriting, built a huge following and critical buzz with their brash fusion of country and power pop, something first deployed on their 1994 debut disc, Hitchhike to Rhome.  Still, an ongoing concern, Old 97’s has produced 12 studio albums and several compilations to date. These include a multitude of tuneful offerings that you have likely heard not only in Spotify alt-country playlists but many films and TV shows including The Break-Up, Scrubs and Veronica Mars.

Rhett has also maintained a concurrent career as a solo artist, producing seven studio and one live album beginning with 2002’s The Instigator.  His solo recordings have been embraced by critics and alternative radio alike. They also boast a squad of A-list collaborators including Rosanne Cash, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Ben Kweller, Jon Brion and members of the acclaimed indie bands, Apples in Stereo and The Decemberists.

Naturally, this tireless and very literate musician has also found time to be a writer. His essays, short stories and articles have appeared in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Salon and McSweeney’s. Via a partnership with illustrator Dan Santat, Miller has also emerged as an author of children’s books, with The Baby Changing Station being their latest offering.  And as if this wasn’t enough, Miller is also the host of Wheels Off with Rhett Miller, a podcast where he investigates the art of creativity via interviews with a variety of musicians, fine artists, authors and more.

Luckily for us, Miller can often be found performing in our area at venues like Colony Woodstock, Live at The Falcon and the City Winery Hudson Valley. Below are his thoughts on his multi-faceted career and his deep reverence for the Hudson Valley.

Rhett Miller singer, songwriter and author

Photos by Ebru Yildiz

INSIDE+OUT: Where are you originally from and how did you wind up in the Hudson Valley?

Rhett Miller: I’m a seventh-generation Texan who married an Ohio girl while living in Hollywood. When she was pregnant with our first child in 2003, we looked around for a place to settle down and the Hudson Valley felt like the perfect fit. Her brother, Jason, helped us find a little house on a few acres outside New Paltz. Twenty years later, we can’t imagine living anywhere else. We are so grateful that we wound up here.

When did you realize that you wanted to be a musician, and how did you get your start?

I thought I’d be a fiction writer, but I kept thinking up songs and wanting to sing them. So, I broke down and learned to play the guitar. Writing songs and performing them for people has been my life and job and since I was 15 and I did my first gig in downtown Dallas. In high school, I opened for everyone from Chris Isaak to Lords of the New Church.

You made your first album, Mythologies, while in high school.  What gave you the courage to take that leap at such a young age?

It was too much fun to feel all that scary. I was lucky that Dallas had a pretty supportive music scene. And I met a bunch of great friends pretty quickly.

You speak very frankly about your teenage battles with school bullies, depression and a suicide attempt at 14. Is your creativity a way that you work to channel and overcome these challenges?

Of course! Music, making it and playing it, is a bridge between my heart and the heart of the listener. Sharing that connection makes both of us stronger. I’ve found meaning in music and creativity. Rock and roll literally saved my life.

We Are Upstate NY with Rhett Miller Rhett Miller with band members of The Old 97s

Your first buzz came with the band Old 97’s and your 1993 debut disc, Hitchhike to Rhome.  That led to being the subject of a bidding war among 15 major labels for your second album, after a much-talked-about showcase at SXSW ’95.  What was that like to be in the middle of all the pulling and wooing? And why did you make the decision to go with Elektra Records?

The old business model was so dumb. But we were lucky enough to be its beneficiaries during that heady stretch in the mid-’90s. It was a trip. But all along we kept true to the idea that we wanted a career rather than a flash-in-the-pan hit song. Thirty years later here we are.

Old 97’s were among the pioneers of the alt-country movement in the ‘90s, but there are lots of elements of power pop and what you have called “loud folk,” and not to mention a lot of bar band grit and Beatlesisms.  Who were the biggest influences on that band and how has it changed over the band’s 12-album run?

Bowie was number one for me. Joan Jett was an early influence. And The Kink’s Ray Davies’ songwriting. As far as the band, our shared influences are many and varied. Among them, you’ll find Johnny Cash, The Clash, X, The Cramps, Buck Owens, T Rex, The Pixies…

You began your solo career with 2002’s The Instigator, the first of seven solo albums.  Why did you go solo and how does the solo work co-exist and differ from what you do with Old 97’s?

I write too many songs for the 97’s machine. In 2001, I got frustrated that I was forced to shelve so many good songs and my bandmates were kind enough to allow me to make solo records with the songs they turned down. The solo outlet has been a major contributor to our longevity.

What‘s your songwriting process?  How often do you write songs and how do you know what songs will go with what project?

I go through periods of massive productivity and periods of dwindled output, like all artists I know of. But I have been lucky and, more importantly, diligent. I believe you can’t wait for the muse to invite you to work, you sit down to work and hope she visits you.

You’ve lived and recorded in many different cities, Austin, Los Angeles, Portland and now the Hudson Valley.  What is it like now living and recording in the Hudson Valley?

I love the Hudson Valley and find it endlessly inspiring. But my job takes me away constantly. I have learned to make my inspiration independent of the locale. That said, the view from Skytop, for example, will never not inspire me.

Some folks may not know that you’re a writer whose short stories and essays have appeared in prestigious outlets like The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Salon and many other places.  What inspires you to choose writing as your creative outlet rather than music?

There is room for all of it. And it all draws from the same well, a need for human connection, a desire to make sense of the human experience.

You wrote a wonderful piece about another Woodstock-area musical icon, David Bowie, for Salon. What did his music mean to you and how come you never got to meet this neighbor?

As I wrote in that piece, he was my North Star. His music, interviews, career and philosophy all informed my approach to creativity and life in general.

In another piece in The Baffler, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Rocker,” you have a pretty dim view of how the music industry has changed since you started your career. Based on this, would you advise a young person to follow your path?  And how has this changed as you’ve gone about your career in recent years?   How have recent evolutions in the music business, from streaming to virtual performances, changed the business for you? What are the positives, and the negatives?

I wrote that a few years ago and I think I’m a little less bleak now. Music is magical. You might not get paid or get paid much, but so what? If you’re meant to make music, do it! Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

We are Upstate NY with Rhett Miller
As a husband and father of two, how do you balance family life with the life of touring music? And why do you think the Hudson Valley is an ideal venue to raise a child?

I love that in the Hudson Valley, I have very little cache or recognition. I’m a dad in sweats on the sideline of a New Paltz Varsity Girl’s Soccer game (go Huguenots!), rather than any sort of public figure. If I lived in Texas, Chicago, San Francisco or someplace where we do big numbers, it’d be a different story. I’d rather have to drive a couple of hours to an airport than have my work life overlap with my family life.

In your opinion, why is the Hudson Valley music scene so good?  Who are your main local collaborators and the folks who you don’t work with here but who inspire you most?

Woodstock has a great history for a reason. Dreamland Studio has hosted some of my favorite recording sessions. Sam Cohen has a brilliant studio in Accord called, Slow Fawn Studios where we’ve collaborated. Jason Sarubbi has a great little studio in New Paltz called Split Rock Recording Studio where I love to work. He’s a great bassist. I love to play with Jason, John Burdick and Angela Iahn in a band I dubbed Rhett Miller and the All-Stars. Just incredible musicians!

You do a lot of local performances, such as your recent residency at Colony Woodstock.  What are some of your favorite venues locally to play and to hear new music?

Obviously, Colony Woodstock, Darryl’s House, The Falcon and a handful of other venues have been wonderful to visit as a performer and fan.

What three albums have most inspired you and why?

Oh man. T Rex’s The Slider gave me permission to yell. The Cramps’ Songs The Lord Taught Us taught me to be weird. And Bowie’s Hunky Dory showed me that songs can be deep art.

Rhett Miller and the Old 97s

Photo by Ebru Yildiz

What are you working on now that you’re most excited about?

Mixing a brand new Old 97’s album that’ll be out in the spring of ‘24.

What is it about the Hudson Valley that makes it unique to live + work here?

I love how relatively undiscovered the area is (SO FAR).

What impact do you, as an artist, have on your community?

My impact is more as a community member, I think.

What local businesses do you rely on to be successful?

I depend on Imperial Soundworks, Split Rock Recording Studios, Slow Fawn Studios and Cafe Mio.

What is missing in the area that you wish we had?

A Trader Joe’s, I guess?

What would be your dream assignment/gig, as a musician and/or writer?

I dream of writing long-form fiction.

Rhett Miller Musician, Author, Songwriter
Who or what inspires you personally?

My son Max and my daughter Soleil (19 and 17 respectively) inspire me to work hard and keep it real.

Tell us something about yourself that people might be surprised to know.

I LOVE hockey and follow the Dallas Stars religiously.

What is your favorite non-musical or literary activity?

I love disc golf and play frequently albeit poorly.

Connect with Rhett Miller Solo work: Website | Podcast: Wheels Off with Rhett Miller.  | Youtube Channel
Rhett Miller and Old 97’s on Website | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube
Select Photos By Ebru Yildiz and others courtesy of Rhett Miller

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Contributing writer Sal Cataldi is a musician and writer in the Hudson Valley.

Click HERE to see all of our exclusive interviews with the amazing folks that proudly call the Hudson Valley home.


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