- The Washington Times - Friday, December 19, 2008

Since forming the Old 97’s in 1993, Rhett Miller has weathered a trainload of changes in the music world. “‘The Believer’ was made during the last gasp of the old-model record industry,” the 38-year-old songwriter says. “We had a big budget, big players, a big producer. It was fun to do it, but I knew at the time that I probably wouldn’t be making another record like that.”

“The Believerwas released in 2006, marking Mr. Miller’s second solo album in four years. Having explored the crossroads of country, rock and pop with the Old 97’s, he took a different approach to “The Believer,” peppering its songs with orchestral flourishes and string arrangements. The result was an earnest, ornate record that expanded Mr. Miller’s audience without alienating his longtime fans.

Soon after the album’s release, however, Verve Records was forced to reduce its staff by 85 percent. The label’s roster also was slashed, leaving Mr. Miller without a home.

“That record label was great for about a month,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not their fault, though. Everyone’s trying to ride the tidal wave of the end of the industry. It’s kind of a cool time to be involved. I think it’s got to be good for music, right?”

If Mr. Miller sounds hopeful, it’s because the industry’s setbacks have yet to derail his own career. The Old 97’s returned in 2008 with “Blame It on Gravity,” one of the year’s best albums, and supported its release with a string of well-attended nationwide shows.

“I was happy, the record label was happy, the band was happy,” he says of the record’s success. “I think it re-established our band as an ongoing vital presence in the music world, and that was the whole point.”

Few songwriters have managed to maintain solo careers while also issuing material with their bands. Nevertheless, Mr. Miller continues to switch roles with ease. After playing a handful of one-man gigs this month, he’ll decamp to Texas to record another solo record in January.

“I’ve put in a lot of months touring with the Old 97’s this year, so it’s nice to get back to my own little world,” he explains. “I like the self-contained nature of it. I like being my boss. It’s a funny thing about having both a solo career and the band; once you get sick of one, the other is right there waiting.”

Of course, few labels have the capacity to finance another big-budget project like “The Believer,” but Mr. Miller isn’t worried about tightened purse strings. “This record will be the antithesis of the last one. It’s very campfire, very quiet, very acoustic.”

Nor is the singer worried about the future of the Old 97’s. Bassist Murry Hammond continues to tour sporadically in support of his own solo release, yet both musicians have written new material for the band, which plans to reconvene in late 2009 for another album. When asked to predict what the industry will look like a year from now, however, Mr. Miller doesn’t seem quite as confident.

“Who knows what it’ll be? A splintered, fractured, digital, post-apocalyptic thing,” he ventures. “Music used to drive the culture so much, and it just doesn’t feel that way anymore. I think people still love it. They depend on it more than ever, with their 10,000-song iPods and everything. But when you can carry 10,000 songs in your pocket, the one individual song gets kinda cheapened.”

Mr. Miller sketches a daunting environment for musicians, but he also proposes a solution. “You just try to write great songs,” he concludes. “Now, more than ever, the music pushes itself. It’s not about a million posters advertising your album, and it’s not about the record company spending $3 million in marketing. If a song is great, I think it’ll find its audience.”

• Rhett Miller will preview material from his upcoming solo record at the Black Cat on Saturday. Joe Pug opens the show. Music begins at 9 p.m. to the tune of $15.

New Year’s Eve

Those wishing to catch their last concert of 2008 may wish to visit the 9:30 Club, where pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph unleashes his mix of funk, soul and electric blues on Dec. 31. Doors open at 9 p.m., and a champagne toast is included in the $55 ticket price.

Several miles south, the Seldom Scene will bring its own interpretation of roots music to the Birchmere. Mike Auldridge, one of the country’s leading Dobro players, recently rejoined the band’s lineup, and local bluegrass act Moondi Klein & Jimmy Gaudreau will open the show.

Having completed a world tour with Madonna, DJ Enferno returns to his solo career with a New Year’s Eve show at Lux in Baltimore. Enferno took second place at the DMC World DJ Championship in 2003, cementing his status as one of the globe’s eminent DJs.

Back in the District, the newly renovated Grand Hyatt Hotel plays host to the annual Downtown Countdown gala. Cowboy Mouth, Pat McGee Band and Gonzo’s Noze will provide live music, with a string of DJs and comedians offering alternate entertainment for the evening’s guests. Tickets for the five-hour event increase in price as the Downtown Countdown approaches.

Other New Year’s Eve concerts include Virginia Coalition at Jammin’ Java, the Legwarmers at the State Theatre and R&B singer Johnny Artis at Madam’s Organ Restaurant & Bar.

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