There is no particular young woman Rhett Miller had in mind when he wrote “We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive,” the opening line on the joyous new Old 97’s album, “Most Messed Up.”
“You look out in the audience and there’s always a pretty, 20-something girl,” says Miller, 43. “Rock ’n’ roll is all about the beautiful 20-year-old girls in the audience and us old perverts onstage.”
He’s joking, or at least he’s half-joking. Miller has two children with his wife, model Erica Iahn, and his bandmates have settled down as well. In fact, when the singer brought in a batch of rowdy songs about hookups and hangovers for the new album, the other Old 97’s were initially “horrified,” he says.
“When I tried to convince them they were wrong, it backfired – they dug their heels in,” says Miller, who brings his veteran indie country band to the Sinclair on Monday for a sold-out show. “I had to let them live with the demos for a little while.”
Two months after the run-through, guitarist Ken Bethea called Miller to express a change of heart.
“I was wrong,” Bethea said. “These are the best songs you’ve written in over a decade. We gotta make this record.”
As the title implies, “Most Messed Up” celebrates the seedier side of life on the road with a rock band. Songs such as “Wasted” and “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On” leave little to the imagination; one scarcely apologetic number describes a friend who won’t submit to an “Intervention.”
Miller, who has released four solo studio albums over the past decade, set aside whatever inhibitions he had at the urging of Nashville songwriter Jon McElroy, who has written songs for Chely Wright, Kenny Chesney, and others.
When they were first paired by a song publisher, “I didn’t even know what we were gonna write for,” Miller recalls, speaking on the phone en route to his band’s gig at the Sasquatch! Festival in Washington state over the Memorial Day weekend. “I was going to some hotshot Nashville songwriter’s house to write a hit single for Miranda Lambert or something.”
But the strength of their collaboration reinvigorated Miller’s band, helping him blow past what he calls a theme in his life.
“Trying to be perfect will drive you crazy,” he says. “I tell my kids all the time – there’s no such thing as perfect. Realizing that and letting go has been a great thing.”
To accentuate the idea, the band brought in a guest, Tommy Stinson, from one of the great defective groups in rock ’n’ roll history, the Replacements. Miller says he and Stinson became friends some years ago when they shared a bill at a benefit in Philadelphia.
“We hit it off, and we wound up staying out until the wee hours,” he recalls. At the end of the night, “I sort of carried him to the hotel. I was the sober one. It was crazy – I outlasted the great Tommy Stinson. I bragged about that for a year.”
Last year, they went out again, this time in the Old 97’s’ native Dallas, after Stinson finished a gig with his current band, Guns N’ Roses.
“That night I was not the winner,” says Miller. In fact, he fell and broke his elbow.
“I called him from the emergency room and said, ‘Dude, you gotta play guitar at our preproduction tomorrow.’ ”
There have been times in the band’s 20-year history when they threatened to take a sharp detour from the punky, hyper-literate honky-tonk style they’ve not-quite-perfected. Miller says Bethea and bassist Murry Hammond have lobbied to make “a straight-up garage-band record,” and Miller has suggested cutting a traditional western swing album, “with strings.”
“We all come in with big ideas,” he says.
At this point, however, they’re starting to think the band is out of their control.
“The 97’s are a machine,” he says. “We can just point it in a certain direction here and there.”
Though there were good songs on the band’s last few albums with the New West label, “Most Messed Up” has been received so well it’s taken the band by surprise. It’s their first release for ATO Records, the label cofounded by Dave Matthews, currently featuring Alabama Shakes, Drive-By Truckers, and My Morning Jacket, among others.
“The story line seems to be that we got our groove back or something, which is sweet,” says Miller. “I’ll take it, even if it’s kind of a backhanded compliment.
“We’re not ready to go gently into that good night,” says the well-read Miller, who writes couplets like a tumbleweed Elvis Costello (“We went drinkin’ at the Roosevelt/ We took something and we started to melt”).
If they’ve settled down in their private lives, they still know how to raise the roof onstage.
“We all feel pretty confident in our ability to rock,” Miller says. “I don’t think we feel stupid yet, shaking our asses and making loud noise.”James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.