The Rebirth of Cool: Old 97’s singer Rhett Miller juggles solo career, band projects and beer cans

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Old 97’s singer Rhett Miller can maintain his cool, even during a Final Destination-like scenario in New York City.

“You know, while we were talking, I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. It was beautiful,” Miller says.

“Then a Budweiser truck dropped a case of beer and I managed to avoid the spinning cans.”

Miller’s days aren’t usually this dodgy. He’s preparing to release a solo album and Old 97’s is readying a Christmas collection of original songs. On Wednesday, October 3, the alt-country quartet will come together for a gig at Sun Devil Stadium on the Coca-Cola Sun Deck.

“We have a lot of great memories from our early trips to Arizona, probably 1993 to 1995,” Miller says. “We played once with the Gin Blossoms, when they were the big hometown heroes. There’s a cool music scene hiding down in Arizona.”

Miller has 25 years of memories with Old 97’s, who have about a dozen studio albums under their collective belt.

“It doesn’t seem possible,” he says with a laugh.

“Every show is something of a retrospective because of this. I spend a lot of time on the setlist. I try and make sure no era is left out. We have a lot of records. I find people respond to the new songs the same as the older material. Too Far to Care is widely regarded as a fan favorite. We probably play slightly more songs from the two most recent records and Too Far to Care.”

He admits, however, that creating a setlist isn’t as easy as it seems.

“I used to agonize over it for way too long,” he says. “Then I got into a groove. Because this is a one-off show, I’ll handcraft a brand new setlist.”

As an elder statesman of the alt-country world, Miller has mentored a slew of up-and-coming artists, like David Wax Museum. He calls it a nurturing, positive environment, contrary to “much of the world these days.”

“The band specifically reached out and asked my advice for different things,” Miller says. “Those kids make great records. When I talk to these younger artists, I tell them talent is great, but it’s always going to be secondary to work ethic. Just put yourself out there and try.”

Miller is prolific himself. In 2017, Old 97’s released the album Graveyard Whistling, which he calls a “super fun album to record.”

“We returned to the scene of the crime of Too Far to Care,” he says. “We were just outside of El Paso and in the same room. It was definitely a time-travel experience. We worked again with Vance Powell, who’s a great producer and engineer. He has a great bedside manner. We’re not getting any younger or less cranky.”

Miller has a solo record, The Messenger, dropping in October.

“It’s a bit of a weird record,” he says. “It’s different from anything I’ve ever done on a solo record. There’s a lot of depth to it, musically and lyrically. I’m really proud of it.

“I don’t know how to get people to hear records in general, especially my solo records. I hope it’ll connect. That’s all I can do, man.”

The Old 97’s Christmas album, Love the Holidays, features nine original holiday songs plus its rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”

“People are really going to like our original Christmas songs,” he says. “It’s hard to write a Christmas song. It’s weird to have a new challenge in the business. There are so many records and things. At a certain point, you have to do something so it’s not like you’re treading the same ground.”

Miller is flying straight from Alaska, where he’s doing a handful of solo shows, to Arizona. A light bulb goes off in Miller’s head.

“What about if I did an alphabetical tour of the United States?” he says with a laugh. “That would be cool.”

Old 97’s with Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights, Sun Devil Stadium’s Coca-Cola Sun Deck, 500 E. Veterans Way, Tempe, 1.800.745.3000, ticketmaster.com, 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 3, $29.50.

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