When Rhett Miller was 8 years old, his parents took him to see his first concert. The Kingston Trio, a legendary folk band from before his time, amazed him.
“There was a real, sort of lighthearted sense about what they did that I really appreciated and still think about to emulate now,” Miller said during a recent telephone interview. “Even if they were singing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ for the 5 billionth time, they still performed it and sold it.”
In an industry where career length rarely reaches a decade, Miller has been successfully recording and performing since 1994, when he and his alternative-country band Old 97’s released their first studio album, “Hitchhike to Rhome.” They have since released almost a dozen albums, with their latest, “The Grand Theatre Volume One” (the first disc of a planned double album) set for an Oct. 12 release.
In addition, Miller has recorded three highly acclaimed solo albums and continues to write and record in a music industry that he said has transformed drastically since he began his career in the mid-1990s.
“I don’t think it could be much different,” Miller said of the music industry. “In 1994, there was a very distinct hierarchy. To think that your life’s goal was to sign a contract. … It’s so funny to me now that that was what we were all striving so hard for — the validation of the major label.”
Old 97’s was being courted by numerous record labels and was “being wined and dined and flown to New York, flown to Los Angeles… .,” Miller explained. “It was crazy. But back then, it was one in a million that you would even get a shot. It would be incredibly unlikely you’d ever get a chance to sit in a boardroom with those people. Now those people are all gone and the boardrooms are gone. And I think that has to be a good thing.”
The demise of the major labels, the emergence of digital music downloads and the changing music business has actually allowed Miller’s music to reach a wider audience, he said. Though his tunes may not top the Billboard charts, Miller said he’s noticing an increase in younger fans. It also hasn’t hurt that there are avenues for younger audiences to hear his music that didn’t exist some 16 years ago.
“‘Rock Band’ might have something to do with that,” Miller said, referring to the Old 97’s song “Timebomb,” which is available for the popular video game. “There are a lot of people that discovered us watching ‘Scrubs’ … and [the movie] ‘The Break-Up’ that came out a few years ago with Vince Vaughn; that came out on [television] already … so we probably gain a new fan every time that comes on.”
One of the band’s songs featured on “Scrubs” was “Question,” which tells the story of a young man who wants desperately to propose to his girlfriend. The girl, however, is in a bad mood, making it difficult for him to find the right time to pop the question. The story, like many of Miller’s songs, is autobiographical. But it has more meaning to him personally.
“I was in England, and it was the first week that I was ever around Erica, the woman that I wound up marrying,” he said. “We were together on a strictly platonic basis. She had a boyfriend, I had gone out on a couple of dates with her roommate.”
At the same time, a friend of a friend had just gotten engaged.
“Their story was the story that I wrote in the song,”" he said. “It was such a sweet story, and I went home that night … I stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning and wrote that song. And it’s kind of ironic that it was only four days later that I would look over at Erica and admit to myself and to her that I was in love with her.”
During the most recent tour with Old 97’s, Miller said that on two occasions, a man proposed to his respective girlfriend in the audience while the band played that song. For “Question” to have such an impact on others’ lives, he said, is incredibly flattering and sweet.
And it’s more than enough reason for Miller and Old 97’s to continue to sell each song … even if it’s the 5 billionth time they’ve performed it.
IF YOU GO
at Sellersville Theater 1894,
Main Street & Temple Avenuem,
Sellersville, PA 18960,
Thursday, Sept. 9, 8 p.m.