Rhett Miller Grabs Reins on 'The Dreamer,' Talks Old 97's Plans

Rhett Miller Grabs Reins on 'The Dreamer,' Talks Old 97's Plans

Bucks System for Fourth Solo Album ... Says 97's Might 'Make the Leap' ... Tour Planned for 15th Anniversary of 'Too Far to Care'

R hett Miller needs some advice. The Old 97's frontman, who is on the road in support of his latest solo effort, wants an outside opinion on how his band should play their breakthrough album, "Too Far To Care," when they tour this fall to fete its 15th anniversary. Rip into "Timebomb" and churn through the entire collection right out of the gate, or tease fans with new and catalogue songs first.

It's quickly agreed upon: Give em' what they want, then do another forty-five minutes of other gems from the alt-country band's catalogue.

But for that, you'll have to wait. The present-day belongs to Miller's fourth solo album, "The Dreamer," a back-to-roots affair for the pop-loving crooner that debuts at No. 2 on this week's Heatseekers chart and No. 26 on Independent Albums. It's his first truly indie outing -- self-produced and outside the label system, and he admits it took some getting used to.

"In the past I've always been beholden to some larger entity, a label, and there's always a budget and certain expectations about how one would go about making a record," he tells Billboard. "I actually enjoyed working under that system... But there's something so liberating about finally taking the reins and after years of letting others be the bottom line, I got to be the bottom line on this record."

Miller released "The Dreamer" on his own Maximum Sunshine label, the fourth home for as many solo studio efforts (his proper debut, 2002's "The Instigator," lived on Elektra. He then landed at Verve Forecast and Shout! Factory). He'd been toying with the idea of going it alone for a while.

"For so many years I was on the old system's model and I had a hard time giving up that idea that you're nobody if you're not somehow Sony or Universal or one of them," he admits.

Sonically, "The Dreamer" marks a rootsier, simpler side of solo-Miller. He and his band the Serial Ladykillers set up in the same Woodstock recording studio where the 97s cut "Too Far to Care" and played the tracks live. "I mean, it was very simple," he says, later recalling a "funny kind of deja vu" to being in the same studio 15 years later.

The result is 13 songs that Miller -- along with 97s -- fans should be pleased as pie about. Jangly guitars, pedal steel-aplenty, acoustic-country shuffles, and direct storytelling using that boyish Texas croon on standouts like "This Summer Lie," "Marina," "As Close as I Came to Being Right," a divine duet with Rosanne Cash, and "Out of Love."

As for the Old 97s, Miller hints at possible changes when he's wrapped up the promotion of "The Dreamer," which includes tour and festival dates throughout the summer. The band's deal with New West Records is up and there's a possibility they'll go the independent route like their frontman.

"We're waiting to see if we want to go with New West or if the band might make the leap," he says. "It's up in the air... We'll revisit in the fall, probably."

With that in mind, Miller has started compiling some songs that he believes are the beginning of the next album by the band (they get "first dibs" on most of what he writes). "We just did a run of days together, and had a lot of fun brainstorming about how we would make the record and where we might record it," he says. "It's all starting again."

As for the 15th anniversary tour for "Too Far to Care," the band's major label debut (Elektra), it's real and "it'll be fun," Miller predicts. "We'll do all the major markets. It also looks like Those Darlins, one of my favorite bands right now, is opening for us."

Only time will tell if his longtime bandmates side with him on whether to play the album-in-question right out of the gate, but we at least know where Miller's heart lies. "I remember when I saw The Wedding Present do 'Seamonsters,' they played all their new songs and everyone was sitting there like 'come on,' then finally..."

Catch Miller on tour now. Dates/locations here.