Maybe you have to be a seventh-generation Texan to have the cojones to rewrite a Bob Dylan song, much less an iconic classic like “Desolation Row.” Rhett Miller, the leader/songwriter of Old 97’s, measures up to such a bold revision.
With last fall’s release of The Grand Theatre Volume One, Old 97’s added yet another twang-fueled burst of Power Pop/Roots music to their illustrious and lengthy career. The Dallas quartet began in 1993 as an AltCountry-styled Indie band, spent time on a major label, got dropped and then rebounded on wide-reaching independent label New West Records.
Included on Grand Theatre is the Dylan rewrite, “Champaign, Illinois,” in which Miller revs up the melody and totally changes the original’s apocalyptic lyrics.
“I sat on this song for a long time because I knew we would get in trouble trying to release it without permission, because getting that from Dylan is usually impossible,” Miller says. “He gets a hundred requests a day. But our manager, Danny Goldberg, intervened.”
Miller sent Dylan a live recording of “Champaign, Illinois,” including some pre-song banter.
“I left in the introduction where I say I took a Bob Dylan melody and changed the lyrics — because we all know that Dylan is not that great of a lyricist,” Miller says with a chuckle. “I waited and worried for two weeks, then heard back that Dylan likes the song but he wants to read the lyrics. Then I had to frantically type in the lyrics and I was doing that with my thumbs on the iPhone in the park where I was watching my daughter play.
“I heard back the next day that he’s going to let me keep half of the publishing.”
Speaking with Miller by phone as he gets ready to leave his Hudson River Valley, N.Y., home for a brief tour, he mentions his local connection: “My wife’s an Ohio girl — she went to Miami University, so it’s good to come to the area.”
Just as he does in his live performances, Miller brings an amiable, upbeat energy to our conversation.
He charms audiences the way he charmed Dylan — with nervy flair. Between his mop-top head-banging and windmill guitar, he charges through songs at full gallop. Though he leads the brigade, the other members’ contributions are just as important to the Old 97’s sound. Bass player Murry Hammond also sings and usually writes a few songs on every record, while longtime members Ken Bethea and Phil Peeples propel the songs with Ennio Morricone-inspired guitar breaks and a resonant, pumping backbeat, respectively.
Miller says the songs on The Grand Theatre flooded out of him during a particularly bountiful bout of songwriting.
“About 14 months ago I did a tour with Steve Earle, spent a month in Scandinavia and England,” he says. “Something about that trip, I started writing and I was doing a song or two or three every day, like I did before I had children, or ‘BC’ — ‘before children.’ I’ve always been prolific, because I’m bouncing back and forth between solo records and band ones, but it has been more than usual lately.”
Like the best Old 97’s records, Grand Theatre blends a rollicking mix of rough-hewn Pop with chiming guitars, a British Invasion twist and straight-ahead Country chasers. From the uptempo Rock of “Every Night is Friday Night Without You” to the melancholy shades of “Let the Whiskey Take the Reins,” the collection touches on familiar themes but with a reenergized attitude inspired by primarily recording the songs live (as opposed to individual tracking and overdubs).
“We did a lot of pre-production in a 100-year-old theater in Dallas called the Sons of Hermann Hall and then we went down to Austin and recorded the songs in a proper recording studio, but most of the tracks were recorded live,” Miller says of the atypically quick sessions.
Miller was on such a writing tear last year that he has more than enough material for The Grand Theatre Volume Two, which is due later this year.
Though Miller no longer lives in the Lone Star state, he takes his Southwestern roots seriously. Growing up with Buddy Holly and Willie Nelson as twin guiding lights on local radio is enough to spoil a person, and Miller is grateful for the Texan characteristics of his personality.
“There’s a pride associated with the state, the rebel or individual’s view of those who are not going to conform to anyone else’s idea of what they’re supposed to do,” Miller says. “And often that gets blown up and turned into some kind of redneck thing that’s annoying. But I think there’s something really beautiful about that Wild West, pioneering spirit. I’m in New York now, looking at the snow, but even though I’m not in Texas, I sort of carry that around.”
OLD 97’s play the Southgate House Wednesday.