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Music: Rhett Miller's still growing, and uncomfortable in a good way

In these turbulent times, in this foul year of our Lord 2009, Rhett Miller is dealing with the lousy economy and the death of his idol the only way he knows how: by writing songs.

In these turbulent times, in this foul year of our Lord 2009,

Rhett Miller

is dealing with the lousy economy and the death of his idol the only way he knows how: by writing songs.

The Old 97s front man is creeping up on 40 but still retains his eternally youthful good looks, the looks that have simultaneously been a blessing and curse for the Texas native his entire career.

After garnering national attention with the release of his first solo album, "Mythologies," at 18 and the formation of the Old 97s, Miller was pegged as the next "it" boy of the burgeoning sub-genre known as alt-country. His whiskey-soaked sentiments dealing with love and loss, punctuated by deceptively clever lyrical wordplay, won the band a devoted following and critical praise.

To many fans of the notoriously superficial genre, Miller was always viewed as a marquee poster boy who favored pop and lacked the honesty or experimentation of Jeff Tweedy or Ryan Adams.

As Wilco and Adams broke from cult status into the mainstream in the early half of the decade, Miller and the Old 97s remained on the fringe of superstardom, and were never invited to join the party.

With seven full-length Old 97s releases (and two solo albums: 2002's "The Instigator" and 2006's "The Believer") the band and Miller are still soldiering on, happy to recruit new fans through their cameo performance in the 2006 Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston vehicle "The Break Up," and content to handle fame, success and growing older on their own terms.

Miller's third solo album, the self-titled "Rhett Miller," was released last week on Shout! Factory Records, with a tour in support featuring the Old 97s and solo sets that stops at Philly's TLA Sunday.

With a model wife and two small children, Rhett has settled into a life of quiet domesticity on his three-acre property in the Hudson River Valley. For a guy who used to stay up all night writing and drinking whiskey, fending off models and actresses and touring relentlessly, Miller has spent the last five years adjusting to fatherhood, while coming to the realization that chasing superstardom is futile.

Q: You've mentioned that you were in a dark headspace writing the new record.

A: I don't think it was anything spectacular or unusual. I'm an artistic personality, and right now it's tough times in a tough world. My wife and I are getting along just fine, and we have two small kids and that's what they say is one of the toughest times for a parent, having to subjugate yourself to them. So there's that, but there's just a lot.

A lot of my friends were going through divorces, and my Grandma died and David Foster Wallace [expletive] hung himself. The guy was one of my heroes. "Infinite Jest" is my favorite book and now he's gone. By choice. It's not like he was just my literary hero - he was, but it was more than that. He was my intellectual hero.

Q: Have you always been attracted to touching on the darker side of things?

A: Yeah. Absolutely. As a younger man, that sort of manifests itself as self-pitying, drunken, "why did this girl leave, what's wrong with me?" type stuff.

I'm never gonna write about war-torn Bosnia or some political issue necessarily, although there is an outtake on the record called "Government Man" and even [that] is written about a friend of mine. But I'm just not good at that, and I'm not interested in writing political or topical songs.

But I do really get fascinated by those moments between two people that are just so fraught with misery. It's those complicated moments when people are trying so hard to connect, and they can't do it. What is it about us as human beings that keep us from being able to connect?

Q: Was the idea behind the new record to be more stripped down and acoustic-based?

A: Yeah. The song "Bonfire" on the new record was sort of the place I was coming from. I wrote that, and thought, "That's what I want this record to be like," and I brought in John Dufilho - the Apples in Stereo drummer, who's a friend of mine. He's so good, and the songs that he got excited about were "Nobody Says I Love You Anymore" and the songs that I personally didn't really have a handle on.

They were kind of these weird songs that I just couldn't figure out what they were supposed to sound like, and he came in and we played them and we just sort of rode the wave and let the songs dictate what they should sound like. The next thing you know I've got these John Bonham-sounding drums on a waltz. To me that's so weird.

The record opens with "Nobody Says I Love You Anymore," which has these machine gun drums over a waltz, over these really weird, dark lyrics. But it felt right, and it felt strange. It felt like I was uncomfortable with it in a good way, like I'm actually growing. This far in, 20 years after I made my first record in high school . . . I'm still growing.

Q: Have you ever had an objection towards the tag "alt-country"?

A: There was a time when we were on Elektra, doing maybe our second or third album, and I really felt that we had so outgrown the classification. I understand when it started, and Bloodshot Records was trying to call it "insurgent country," and the national press kind of picked up more on the alt-country tag. . . . That's no good, though.

Alt-country, at the beginning, was something that just felt right, because we were running around with all these other bands who were doing some sort of variation on American roots music, and some bands were a little more honky tonk, or some were more like us, who were this sort of country-rock hybrid. . . . When we made our first record for Elektra, it still fit pretty well, but after a while it just began to feel derivative, or reductive and insulting.

I've kind of come around now to the point where I really don't care. People need to talk about music, and the people who like alt-country music, whatever that is, tend to be pretty cool, and I talk to them and I like them and I like a lot of the bands that we get lumped in with, so I've kind of come full circle, from embracing it, to begrudging it, and now I'm back to being fine with it.

Q: There was a four-year dormant period between Old 97s records.

A: Between releases. I made "The Believer" in there, and then we worked on "Blame it on Gravity" for a while. We did a cameo in the movie "The Break-Up," and a lot of touring. There was no self-imposed hiatus or anything. [Bassist] Murry Hammond had a baby, and he was the last one in the band to have one. I had my second baby, my daughter, in that period. . . . I used to be so impatient, so part of that was me, sort of just letting it be a little bit. I don't know if it's been good for our career as a band.

I've always just been really driven. Not driven to be famous or rich, but just kind of driven to keep doing this. I dropped out of college after one semester on a full scholarship because I just couldn't wait. . . . There were a lot of years of me just not letting up and not letting up, and it was nice to have a little bit of a breather, but I got very antsy. So it feels good to be back on the one-album-every-year trip.

Q: What brought you and Murry together, artistically and as friends? And what were the musical influences that helped shape the Old 97s?

A: Murry was my mentor. When I was 15, he was a few years older, and we were both dating girls named Jennifer who were best friends, and we met and eventually the Jennifers fell by the wayside, and he and I stayed friends and became partners in music.

We've been doing this together for a long, long time, and I learned about most of my favorite music from Murry. I came in, I was only 15, when I was really on this trip about British music. David Bowie and Aztec Camera and Echo & the Bunnymen, it was all this really kind of Anglophile stuff, and Murry was really into punk rock and hardcore and the American psychedelic, the Paisley Underground movement in L.A., and he taught me all these things that I still think about and am still obsessed with.

Q: How did you feel being thrust into the role of the heartthrob of alt-country?

A: It was hard to get upset if that's what people were saying. I mean, we're talking about alt-country being reductive, when I first started to play gigs, the Dallas Observer would call me "pretty-boy teen folkie Rhett Miller."

When we made our first record, the self-financed "Hitchhike to Rhome," I made a point that in the album artwork, you could see everybody else's face but mine was a blur. During the early years of the Old 97s, I wore huge glasses and I've always made it a point to not play up the heartthrob angle.

But at a certain point in my mid-20s, I thought, 'What am I doing? If I'm going to take this to the logical extreme I'll wear a burqa. I mean, am I really so debilitating good-looking?' " [Laughs.]

I don't care, man. So what if some girls think I'm cute. I had a guy walk up to me one time at a gig and say, "God, I wish you looked like Jeff Tweedy, because it would be a lot easier to like your band!" I think it was a really weird thing to say, because I think Jeff is a pretty good looking guy. *

Old 97's, with solo performances by Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond, TLA, 334 South St., 8 p.m. Sunday, $22, 215-922-1011,