Listening to the 18-minute musical monologue has been a Thanksgiving tradition among folk music fans for decades.
His latest is “The Dreamer” and it hews more closely to the alternative country sound the Old 97s are so well known for.
It’s also the first CD he’s made that his fans have helped to finance through a Pledge Music campaign.
Here and Now’s Alex Ashlock caught up with Miller before he and his band The Serial Lady Killers played a recent show at the Brighton Music Hall in Boston. An edited transcript of the conversation is below.
What’s the difference between Serial Lady Killers and the Old 97s?
They call me boss in Serial Lady Killers and the Old 97s would never think to do that except in the most dripping-with-sarcasm tones. I have a lot of fun with both bands, but they’re very different.
The SLKs are versatile to a fault. I could lead them off a cliff of heavy metal if I wanted to. But the 97s are a specific thing, they’re like a machine. You put a song into it and comes out sounding a certain way, but we can goof off a lot more with the SLKs.
Is the new CD is a little closer to Old 97s compared to some of your other solo CDs?
Yeah, for sure. I had made so many solo records where I had felt defensive about having to make solo records. I wanted the band to keep working, so I figured I had to make it obvious to the fans why I’m making solo records, so they don’t think I’m a jerk who’s just out for a money grab.
I made these records that were way poppier than the 97s, but then as the 97s became more of a garage band, I felt like I had the room to make this solo record that has pedal steel, slide guitar and female vocal harmony everywhere, and the 97s’ toes don’t get stepped on.
Do you think Johnny Cash is spinning in his grave, knowing that his daughter, Roseanne Cash, is tweeting with Rhett Miller and ended up on your solo album?
Her dad doesn’t really enter into it, though she must assume I idolize her dad.
But she’s never asked about it?
No, but it’s fine, because we work on a different level, because we met through Twitter and mutual friends, who said you guys would be good co-writers. So just as an experiment, she sent me the first verse that we did on my record. I was so eager to convince her that I was a worthy conspirator that I sent a song back the next day. We tweaked it a little bit after that, but it was done very quickly. And we did a demo of it and our voices just seemed to mesh so well. After the demo was over, we were both kind of giddy. It was really beautiful.
Why did you decide to do this CD through the Pledge Music route?
I wanted to own my own master for the first time. I spent so many years under the old business model of having a big corporation, to whom you’re beholden, that owns your masters, that calls the shots. And any time someone wants to use your music, for instance in a movie, they have to go through that corporation. My music will never truly be my own for all my records in my catalogue.
But now, this record is mine. I love the idea of the people kind of owning it. It’s like saying, “I like you, I’ll put my money down. I don’t have to. I could go listen to it for free in any number of ways.”
What inspires you to write a song? Are there specific things? How does that work?
When I’m writing a song, I don’t usually have an agenda. Sometimes I just want to write a song. For instance, I was in Seattle last September and I was just about to go in to make this record, and I really wanted to write a song in this one hour lull I had before a sound check. I picked up the Seattle Stranger and I said, “I’m going to open it to whatever page, and I’m going to write a song about whatever picture I see.” And I opened it to a picture of a film director named Lynn Shelton. She had done a movie called “Hump Day” that I had seen and liked.
I had never seen a picture of her before, but she had such a cocky smile and a messed-up cowboy hat. She looked like somebody I would be writing a song about. And it said underneath her picture, “Recipient of the [Stranger] Genius Award.”
I sat down immediately and said, “She was a genius, I was intimidated.” I projected this whole idea of what it would have been like to date Lynn Shelton. Of course, she’s happily married. But eventually, I got a copy of the song to her, and she said she liked it.
I feel like music is all instinct, you can talk yourself into a number of things, but maybe the one that is right is the first one that pops into your head.
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