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Published: 2013/11/01
by Brian Robbins

Rhett Miller on the Old 97’s, Waylon Jennings, and the Holy Grail

So why did these tracks go in to the vault, Rhett?

Well, like I mentioned, the artwork was a big hangup at first – and then we started rolling with our records for Elektra. In the meantime, Waylon’s health was deteriorating … and nobody wanted to hassle him about, “What are we going to do with this? We should get it out …”

When Waylon passed away, you had a family dealing with the loss of their patriarch – we don’t want to be haranguing them with “How are we going to release this record?” After a while, so many years had gone by that it was just sort of the “Lost Record” – the Holy Grail of our catalog.

Over the years we became friends with the now-adult Shooter Jennings – and at one point, Shooter decided he wanted to use one of the songs for a benefit compilation that he was putting together. That was cool; and we thought, “Now that it’s kind of out there, let’s get it out there for real.”

It’s too bad that it took so long, but in a way, it kind of adds to the mystique of it. There’s so little mystique left in any kind of rock ‘n’ roll with the internet and everything the way it is – it’s nice to have something that was kind of whispered about for years and years to finally be available.

Did you cross paths with Waylon again after that day in the studio?

No … sadly, I didn’t ever get to see him again after that.

You mentioned his graciousness – would you say that’s the biggest lesson you carried away from that day?

Yeah. It’s something that the older I get; the deeper into the music I get; and the more I find myself in a position where I’m around young musicians who might look up to me, I think about the generosity with which he approached our session and the kindness that he showed to us.

It would’ve been really easy for Waylon to just kind of be aloof and whatever. We still would’ve thought he was cool. But he didn’t. He treated us like his peers; maybe not his equals, as the amount of wisdom there was so enormous, but he treated us like real people. And I try to do that now … no matter how young a kid is that’s in a band – or any musician that comes up to talk after a gig – I try to remember that I was that kid. I really appreciated it when someone treated me like a human being back then.

Keeps your head pointed in the right direction.

Yeah … and that’s tough in this business.

I didn’t want to overlook the Old 97’s demos that are included on the EP. People who know the band may know these songs, but not necessarily these stripped-down versions. You know, I’m rooting for the guy in “Visiting Hours” … but he’s a frigging mess, man. (laughter)

Yeah. The characters in my songs are a mess a lot of the time. Wait until you near the new Old 97’s record … (laughs)

There’s one song on the EP that I’d completely forgotten about: “London I Know”. I wrote it, made a demo of it, and then never thought about it again until now. It’s crazy to hear it come back 17 years later. I was like, “That’s a pretty good song …” I mean, I might not like it if I was from London

Was there one thing in particular that had happened that set you off or were you just ready to get out of London?

I think we hadn’t done a lot of stuff in Europe at that point. We’d traveled through London; we hadn’t been able to get a good gig; we got a shitty gig … But honestly? I didn’t even remember writing the song. And it’s so angry: “The fish and chips vendors will be fuel for the fire”? I mean, God

It’s like Woody Guthrie high-siding and going on a total to-hell-with-all-of-you tear.

Yeah! For sure. Not trying to be nice about anything at that point.

And then “Fireflies” and “Born On A Train” are both about leaving; one of them’s a warning and the other’s a “Well, what did you think was going to happen?” reflection.

“Born on A Train” was a cover of a Magnetic Fields song that I always really related to. They did the song with keyboards and all that kind of stuff; I just heard it as a straight-up country song. Again, it goes back to that same hobo thing that Murry and Waylon were talking about – the guy who’s got to be leaving, you know? “Love me while I’m here, ‘cause I’ll be gone.”

And then, as we said earlier, the band’s in the studio, working on a new album – what can you tell us about that?

Well … it’s pretty bawdy; there’s a lot of cursing; a lot of drinking; a lot of sex; a lot of characters who are pretty messed up …

All right! (laughter)

Yeah. It’s got a lot of big, loud guitars on it – it’s going to harken back to the early Old 97’s stuff. I keep wondering if we’re going to become one of those Americana bands who’s going to become gentler and have mandolins playing softly while we sing songs about aging … (laughs) But no – not at all.

God bless ya – that’s good to hear. You guys have broadened your sound over the years, but you haven’t lost your edge at all.

Well thank you – thank you very much.

That’s not a compliment; it’s a statement of fact.

Okay. (laughs)

Before I let you go, I have to ask you something: I like to think I’ve gotten a little less heavy-handed since I first started playing the guitar as a young fella … acquired a little more finesse along the way. But I still manage to draw blood on my pick hand – rip off the index finger nail or take a gouge out of my thumb – whenever we play live. I guess I still feel like if I don’t, I’m not trying.

I hear you. (laughter)

You have an aggressive playing style – any helpful hints as far as protecting the hands?

Man, it took me so long to get to the point now where I don’t bleed all the time. But, yeah – like you said, it’s just finesse. I had to learn that when I slam down on the strings, just hit them with the pick – don’t hit it with your fingers. I’ve had too many soundholes filling up with blood.

The real trick is finding the balance between giving as much as I can give – and being capable of doing it again the next night. It took a long time. And I still have nights where I give too much and I feel wiped out … but I love what I do so I can’t complain.

Well, if you’re feeling the music, what are you gonna do, right? But, yeah – I’ll work on that finesse thing.

(laughs) I don’t know – don’t work on it too hard, man. It’s fun to bleed sometimes.

*****

Brian Robbins keeps a couple blood-stained guitars, a mando, and a bouzouki over at www.brian-robbins.com.

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