Concert preview: Old 97’s singer Rhett Miller takes his Scrabble game nearly as seriously as the band’s music

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From the June 5, 2014 edition

In late May, Columbus singer/songwriter Lydia Loveless posted a seemingly innocuous message to her Facebook wall, writing, “Rhett Miller just offered to play Scrabble with me.”

What Loveless might not have realized at the time is the Old 97’s frontman, who joins his bandmates for a show at the Newport on Friday, June 6 (where Loveless will serve as opening act), wasn’t solely being friendly, and he had little intention of losing when he first issued the challenge.

“She does not know what she’s in for, man,” Miller said in a recent phone interview, punctuating the boast with a loud, sharp laugh. “My favorite grandma and I used to play Scrabble when I was a kid, and I never stopped. I’m a Scrabble champ.”

The singer has a long-held fascination with language that bleeds into everything from his ongoing word-game addiction (he’s also hooked on Words with Friends, and even finished as runner-up in a Dallas-area celebrity tournament) to the narrative-driven songs he pens for both his solo albums and with Old 97’s.

In recent years, Miller has even weighed the possibility of stretching these tales beyond the realm of three-minute pop songs — “I’ve always planned on segueing into some longer-form writing in my middle age,” he said, “and I know I have at least one novel in me before I’m done” — but time and again he finds himself returning his attention to music rather than exploring other literary forms.

“There was a time when it was cool to write poetry, and I think it became very uncool at a certain point in high school,” he said. “But I still secretly wanted to write poetry, and how do you get people to listen to poetry these days? You strum a guitar and make it a rock ’n’ roll song and suddenly everybody thinks it’s cool again.”

The country-punk quartet’s latest, Most Messed Up, is less a collection of flowery verses than a gritty travelogue of sorts, chronicling the various highs (the Friday night debauchery of “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On”) and lows (the Sunday morning comedown of “Intervention”) that come with spending two decades on the road as part of a hard-touring group. There’s also an inherent sense of joy in the recording, best exhibited by buoyant album opener “Longer than You’ve Been Alive,” where Miller turns music-obsessed guidance counselor, hyping the benefits of following along in his footsteps.

“I’ve made a living out of shaking my ass,” he sings. “And if you offered me an office I’d have to pass.”

“There was a time when … you could be a rock star and get chicks and have a chance at getting rich. Now there’s only the former,” Miller said. “It’s a cool job, and I’m afraid kids are going to avoid a life in the arts or a life in music.”

On previous albums, the frontman generally avoided dwelling too heavily on the past — in a 2011 interview he spoke of forever moving toward the future “with blinders on and focus[ed] solely on what we’re doing right now” — but a bulk of Most Messed Up started to take shape in the wake of a 2012 tour marking the 15th anniversary of the band’s 1997 album Too Far to Care.

“The songs on Too Far to Care … were written by and about a kid who was on the brink of a life as a professional musician,” Miller said. “And it was crazy. For me, my dream was coming true, and I recognized the beauty of it, but I also recognized the peril. It’s a scary thing, and it’s something you have to survive.”

The songs on Most Messed Up, in turn, tend to adopt a survivor’s perspective, with Miller retracing the twisting path the bandmates have managed to navigate together.

“Part of this record was allowing myself the luxury to reflect on the two decades I’ve spent in this band and the two-and-a-half decades I’ve spent as a professional musician,” he said. “People can smell when something is false, and so the best songs I’ve written are the ones that are the most honest and the most true to who I really am. Sometimes I’ll blow it up for the sake of a good story or for the sake of drama, but generally I’m that guy in those songs, and I’m just trying to tell something true to the world.”

Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson