Old 97’s’ Rhett Miller on Bob Dylan co-write

The Old 97’s helped launch the “alt-country” movement.

More than 15 years later, the band still ranks as one of the genre’s most exciting.

Power pop, a nice touch of twang and richly detailed lyrics are key ingredients dating back to the group’s 1994 full-length debut “Hitchhike to Rhome.”

The Old 97’s have been regularly touring and issuing albums -- along with solo releases by leader Rhett Miller -- ever since.

WMNF (88.5), which will bring the band to Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa on March 2, has given them ample airplay over the years.

But it has been about a decade since the Old 97’s, which formed in Dallas, played southwest Florida.

“And we get a lot of grief about it,” Miller said by phone from Stewart International Airport, near his new home in Hudson Valley, N.Y. “And rightly so. We should’ve come back. We just hired a new booking agent and I think we’ll be coming to the southeast, and the Tampa Bay area specifically, more often.”

The Old 97’s are touring in support of “The Grand Theatre, Vol. 1.” Miller intended it to be a double-album like the band’s superb 2005 concert release “Alive & Wired.” Much has changed, though, in the past five or six years, especially in the music industry.

“But then there were the realities of the record label and the publishing company and it just turned into this freaking nightmare,” the singer/songwriter said. “Not to mention the sort of music intelligentsia that I polled about the question of the double album. They also seemed to agree that the era of the double album is over. If anything, we’re now in the era of the more frequently released EP.”

Miller expects his label New West to release the sequel July 2.

As for volume one of “The Grand Theatre,” it features the most unique song in the Old 97’s’ canon:

A Rhett Miller/Bob Dylan collaboration called “Champaign, Illinois.”

The Old 97’s’ leader had the temerity to set fresh lyrics to the icon’s epic, classic “Desolation Row.”

Miller waited a decade before getting permission to officially release the song.

“It took us finding a manager that was friends with his manager and hiring him,” Miller said.

That would be Danny Goldberg, a former journalist whose companies have managed Nirvana, Beastie Boys, The Allman Brothers Band, Steve Earle as well as numerous others from 1983-92 and 2006-present.

Miller said to Goldberg: “Dude, you gotta know how to make this happen. Please. We hired you because you’re a big shot. So, prove it.”

Goldberg did.

Miller sent Dylan’s management a live recording of “Champaign, Illinois” made at the intimate Largo club in Los Angeles. He included the spoken word intro:

“This is a song I rewrote. The melody is from a Bob Dylan tune. Everybody knows he’s not that great at lyrics, so I wrote new lyrics for it.”

“Of course I was joking,” Miller said. “I was a little worried, but I figured if he doesn’t get it then he’s not going to get any of it.”

Miller heard back that Dylan liked the recording but wanted to read the lyrics.

“So I frantically started typing,” Miller said.

Dylan’s reaction?

“This is great.”

Miller now shares a publishing credit with one of the greatest songwriters in the history of popular music.

“It’s a huge honor,” Miller said.

Wade Tatangelo, features writer/columnist, can be reached at (941) 745-7057. Visit his blog at

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