Veteran alt-country band the Old 97's has a dilemma many groups would envy. The prolific band, which has released eight studio albums since 1994, has too many songs. That makes putting together a set list a challenge for frontman Rhett Miller.
"It's what I agonize over every night," Miller says. "I love making set lists, but now we've got so many songs."
The alt-country act's newest album, last year's The Grand Theatre, Volume One, featuring 12 songs culled from twice as many recordings, doesn't help Miller's situation. As the "Volume One" suggests, there's plenty more where that came from.
The Dallas-rooted band now has more than 120 songs to choose from each night, all some mixture of their expansive sonic palette, which ranges from radio-friendly adult contemporary to elements of British Invasion rock. That's a problem even when headlining and playing for a couple hours, but it's a nightmare when opening or playing a short festival set.
"Eventually, we're going to have to start playing for three or four hours, or build robots that can play for three or four hours," Miller says.
He claims he can't skip over any of the band's releases in the live show, especially 1995's Wreck Your Life, the Old 97's breakthrough album. Then, of course, there's the defining hit single, "Question" ("Some day somebody's gonna ask you a question that you should say ‘Yes' to"), a heartaching folk ballad that's since become a marriage-proposal anthem heard in car commercials, TV shows and has even been covered by Ben Lee.
"I look out at the audience and [for] every record, there are people that like songs from that record better than any of the others," he says. "That's kind of cool."
Miller will get plenty of opportunities to play them all: The band toured for much of the winter and will "go out and stay out, on and off for the next 20 years," he says.
"The new record, to me, feels like it has a lot of the sort of garage sound we flirted with on the last record," he says. "There's a lot of tough rock & roll. There are some pretty songs and some of the most country stuff we've done. But to me, it's a garage record."
Miller wrote most of the new record while he was on a solo tour opening for Steve Earle in Europe last year.
"That's always good for songwriting. It shakes you up to get out of your natural environment," he says. "You can see things differently. That happens less and less the older you get."
Recording a double album in 2010 is, Miller admits, something of a fool's errand.
"We made a bunch of songs that are essentially a double album; that's an anathema these days," he says. "The record [company] doesn't want to put out a double album. It would kill what little profit there is. The public doesn't want to sit down and listen to two albums these days. Maybe they don't have the attention span to listen to a whole record, much less a double album."
Then there's the fact that album sales continue to tumble and music is still widely shared or stolen online.
"My music doesn't have the same value it once did, that's for sure," Miller says. "But I'll take what I can get. Maybe we should put out EPs every six months. The kids seem to like that. I'm just glad people still like music."
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