The title of Rhett Miller’s ninth solo album — The Misfit — is rich with subtext.
“I think that it works on a couple of levels, where this record itself feels like a bit of an outlier with even my solo catalog,” Miller said, during a recent conversation from an upstate New York tour stop. “And then, as an artist, I think I’ve always felt like a misfit.”
Such a sentiment might seem odd, especially coming from the front man of Old 97’s, the beloved Dallas-based band bearing down on its 30th anniversary. Yet, the Austin-born and Dallas-bred Miller swears the feeling has been a constant throughout his career to date.
“We’ve always been too loud for Nashville and too twangy for Hollywood — on and on, we’re always too something for somebody,” Miller said.
More so in his solo work, Miller has embraced impulses that might feel a bit out of step with the day job: Working with iconoclastic producers like Jon Brion, enlisting the bluegrass band Black Prairie as collaborators or singing a duet with jazz-inclined pop artist Rachael Yamagata.
Due out Friday on ATO Records, The Misfit is, perhaps, Miller’s loosest, trippiest record yet, a work conceived alongside producer Sam Cohen, and one which deftly balances Miller’s ever-sharp eye for novelistic detail with an outer-galaxy atmosphere to create something absorbing, arresting and affecting.
“This record was completely different than any record I’ve ever made,” Miller said. “Songwriting, to me, has always felt like magic. … The kind of magic that this was was where you go in with practically nothing, maybe the seed of an idea for song. Then, by the end of the night, you have the fully realized recording of the song. Sam played everything himself and I did push him towards weirder, more psychedelic [sounds] because he’s so good at that, and because it’s something I’ve always really loved and been drawn to.”
Even as the 52-year-old singer-songwriter pushes his sound into vivid new places, the past is never far from his mind. The Misfit’s opening track, “Heart Attack Days,” was written from an Airbnb rental Miller recently stayed in near Lower Greenville, a poignant reflection on how much has changed, and what’s remained the same.
“We always feel like the time we’re in is the only time, and when you hear stories, it’s easy to just dismiss them as history,” Miller said. “But the history wasn’t that long ago. The funky Lower Greenville neighborhood of my youth doesn’t seem like a distant memory. It doesn’t seem like, you know, 30 years ago, right?”
To underscore that point, Miller noted next year marks a three-decade milestone for Old 97’s: “We’re actually putting together some pretty exciting events to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the band,” he teased. “We’re going to try and do something special in Dallas for that.”
Before that, however, he’ll soon be back in the quartet’s formative stomping grounds as a solo act. In October, Miller has a trio of headlining dates set across North Texas, hitting Denton, Dallas and Fort Worth in the span of roughly a week.
“I don’t do that tour of North Texas as often as I probably should or could, but it gets super fun,” Miller said. “I still feel like a 19-year-old kid.”
Rhett Miller at Dan’s Silverleaf, Denton, Dallas. 8 p.m. Oct. 22. Tickets are $30.
Breathe Easy Concert Series feat. Rhett Miller (benefiting Cystic Fibrosis Foundation) at Community Beer Co., Dallas. 6:30 p.m. Oct. 27. Tickets are $35-$100.
Rhett Miller at The Post at River East, Fort Worth. 8 p.m. Oct. 28. Sold out.
Preston Jones is a North Texas freelance writer and regular contributor to KXT. Email him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter (@prestonjones). Our work is made possible by our generous, music-loving members. If you like how we lift up local music, consider becoming a KXT sustaining member right here.