Posts Tagged With: Rhett Miller

Old 97s: too far down the road to care

When alternative-country was hitting its mid-’90s stride, two of its leading lights were the Old 97s and Whiskeytown. And for a time, the bands were on very friendly terms.

“Ryan was such a sweet kid at first,” 97s frontman Rhett Miller said when I interviewed him for “Losering” last year. “I met him when he opened for the Old 97s with the Freight Whalers, and he might have been 18. We could tell he had something special. So we became friends, and they were getting signed at the same time. He’d call up and ask what I thought about different deals and offers. It was very friendly. But then we did that No Depression tour, and I think the fact that they had to play before us every night really got under his skin.”

That was the beginning of the for-the-papers “feud” between Whiskeytown and the Old 97s, which you’ll find more about in chapter seven of the book. A decade and a half later, Miller seemed to find the whole thing mystifying and amusing in equal parts.

“I’ve got no hard feelings and he’s obviously very talented,” Miller said of Ryan. “I heard a song of his on the radio, from one of those Cardinals albums, and it was so beautiful. Yeah, he’s got a lot of talent. I hope he figures out how to use it.”

Old 97s are on tour this fall marking the 15-year anniversary of their signpost album, Too Far to Care. The tour plays Saturday night at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro.

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Yackin’ it up

As cool as a lot of my old stuff was, it still wasn’t going to be enough to fill out “Losering” all by itself. I had already started interviewing people in and around Ryan’s past, and I kicked that process into high gear during January-February 2011. I set a goal of at least one Ryan-related interview per day, and some days I managed two or three. It was most often in the evening (very late in the evening, if they were on the West Coast) or early morning, or weekends — whenever I could get people on the phone. Everybody at the N&O had to take a week of unpaid furlough days that quarter. I put those days to good use working on Ryan.

I caught a few breaks, too, where the Ryan book dovetailed nicely with other work. For example, Carol Burnett was coming to Durham that spring, and I got to interview her. Ryan had dated her daughter for a stretch, the late Carrie Hamilton (she’s the woman pictured in the Gold CD booklet), and they wrote at least one song together. Along with a nice Q&A for the paper, I got a Ryan-related quote from Burnett, who called Ryan “very sweet.” How could I not use that? In my household growing up, “The Carol Burnett Show” was a weekly ritual.

Then there were the Old 97s. Before I’d even made up my mind to try and talk to Rhett Miller about Ryan, I got a magazine assignment to interview him. So I did that assignment, got some hilarious stories about the 97s’ late-1990s “feud” with Whiskeytown for the book and also wrote something for the paper when the Old 97s tour came through Chapel Hill. Triple-plus-good; quadruple, if you count the fact that the story also ran in the N&O’s sister paper, the Charlotte Observer.

When I queried potential interview subjects, I just told them I was writing a book about Ryan and asked if they were willing to talk; nothing more, nothing less. Most people readily agreed without asking any questions, but a few did ask whether or not Ryan himself had agreed to participate. If anyone asked that, I always told the truth: No, he hadn’t. That put the kibosh on a few folks I’d hoped to interview, but it turned out to be not as much of an issue as I’d feared.

Like reporters always do, I fretted about whether or not I’d have enough material. But I had plenty, arranged in stacks of papers and notecards in file folders with circles and arrows and asterisks and such. There was still some interviewing to do, which continued as I wrote the book. But as 2011’s spring thaw set in, it was time for me to begin my private version of March Madness: the herding of the words.

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