Rhett Miller stays on track with or without the Old 97's

When producers passed on the song Rhett Miller wrote for the TV show "I'm With Her," he took it as a challenge: "They ended up scrapping it and going with a cover of 'Is She Really Going Out With Him' sung by the lead singer of Sugar Ray ... I was like, 'Well, I'm going to write some verses to it and make it a real song and you're gonna WISH you had that song!" "I'm With Her" ended up being one of the highlights of Miller's solo album "The Believer."

When producers passed on the song Rhett Miller wrote for the TV show "I'm With Her," he took it as a challenge: "They ended up scrapping it and going with a cover of 'Is She Really Going Out With Him' sung by the lead singer of Sugar Ray ... I was like, 'Well, I'm going to write some verses to it and make it a real song and you're gonna WISH you had that song!" "I'm With Her" ended up being one of the highlights of Miller's solo album "The Believer."

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Rhett Miller is on the bus touring with his longtime band the Old 97's, but he's doing interviews promoting his upcoming solo shows.

"The 97's never ends," says Miller. "It just goes and goes forever. This week we do a bunch and then we do a lot of one-offs over the summer while I'm doing my more extensive touring for the solo record. Then in August we'll start touring the 15th anniversary of (the band's most beloved disc) 'Too Far to Care.' So no rest for the wicked."

Since the release of 2002's "The Instigator," Miller has shoehorned in solo projects between Old 97's albums. His newest, "The Dreamer," will be released on June 5. It's not always easy for a group when its lead singer-songwriter steps out for his own projects, but Miller and the 97's have made it work.

"I'd be lying if I said there wasn't some weirdness when I made the first album," says Miller. "But when we reconvened and made 'Drag It Up' and then I made 'The Believer' and the 97's made 'Blame It On Gravity,' the band realized that it was necessary for me, because there are so many songs that they are not into. And if I didn't have that I would be a very cranky, frustrated band mate. And we've been a band for so long that a few months off doesn't really freak them out."

The Old 97's formed in Dallas in 1993 and were early stars of the alt-country/Americana movement. Miller has always been a prolific songwriter, but he's only one cog in that wheel.

"One of the great things about our band is the audience has appreciated that it IS such a band. It's not just me with a fake band name. I can't tell those guys what to do. Are you kidding?"

Miller says he doesn't think about the band or solo project when he begins writing songs.

"I'm always writing songs and putting them in my notebook and playing them for the guys and seeing if they like them. If they don't like them they go into the solo pile. I try to give them first dibs, but then there's some songs that come last minute that are for the project that I'm writing right then."

He's sometimes surprised at songs the group passes on.

"There was a song called 'Another Girlfriend' on the last solo album that seemed to me like the quintessential Old 97's song, but they just weren't into it. 'The Dreamer' is more rootsy and Americana than anything I've done as a solo artist, so there are songs on there I was surprised they weren't into. But at this point, the 97's are not a gentle West Coast, Eagles (style) country band. They're pretty much a Nuggets-garage rock insane rock band."

When promoting his solo albums, Miller either plays a solo acoustic show or with his side band the Serial Lady Killers. The Knoxville date will be just Miller alone.

"On those I play everything," he says. "It's anything goes. I love doing those shows. It's a blast. I can tell a story in the middle of a song. I can bail out on a song. I can create a melody on the fly. There's so much freedom in those shows."

Miller also has aspirations to write other things. He's working on a mystery novel and he's guest-editing an issue of the online Magnet Magazine. He's also featured in a fashion shoot for the April issue of Esquire and participated in the charitable Esquire's Songwriting Challenge. He's also taken on a few songs-per-hire situations. He wrote the theme for the short-lived show "Twenty Good Years" and wrote the song "I'm With Her" for the TV show of the same name, but producers passed.

Miller says the future is open.

"I don't think I'll ever stop making records. But I would like to kind of segue into the written word more as my body decays. I don't know if I can continue to flail around on the stage as much as I do forever."

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