Old 97s comes to play free for ‘Texas’ tour

It’s an absolute must-see for local cowpunkers: Rhett Miller’s rollicking alt-country outfit Old 97s is playing San Francisco’s Justin Herman Plaza at 5 p.m. today for free as part of a traveling “Texas on Tour” promotion. “The Texas tourism board asked us a few months ago if we would be the face of this series that they’re doing to promote visiting the state or even moving there,” says Miller, proud of the ambassador duties. “In fact, I got so excited by the idea of it that I wrote a new song called “A State of Texas.” But, he’s got more branding irons in the fire than just this.

What else is going on? Right now, I’m writing a review for Book Forum of this book about Bob Dylan that’s coming out. And I just got e-mailed the behind-the-scenes footage of the new “Squidbillies” episode that I’m on with a bunch of other musicians. And I’ve also got this novel I started in January, but we ended up making the record. It was a big speed bump in the actual progress of it. The working title is the name of the protagonist, “Milo,” and it’s a mystery about a songwriter/musician who’s an amateur sleuth. But, he’s got a dark past. He likes to smoke weed.
New album, you say? Yeah! The Old 97s have a new double album, with 20 songs, coming out in October. We just finished mastering today. It’s called “The Grand Theatre.” It’s all new, but there’s one song called “Champaign, Illinois” that I’ve been playing live for a while. It’s a re-write of “Desolation Row,” the Dylan tune, and I wrote all new words for it. I’d never recorded it because I was afraid of his lawyers, but I sent Dylan a copy of me singing at Largo one night and he actually said yes. And not only that, instead of taking 100 percent of the publishing like we’d offered, he made it 50-50!
How did you end up on “Squidbillies”? They asked a bunch of people — The Drive-By Truckers, Lucinda Williams, Todd Snider — and I was on the list. We did one group song where everybody sings along, and I also did the voice of an al-Qaida operative who’s trying to buy yellowcake plutonium from Grandma. Those “Squidbillies” guys are geniuses.

You’ve also got a new covers EP, “Mimeograph.” We did the Stones’ “Rocks Off,” R.E.M.’s “Driver 8,” “Five Years” by Bowie and the Fratellis’ “For the Girl,” which has so many words sung so fast people have said it sounds like a song I might’ve written!

Old 97s
Presented by “Texas on Tour”

Where: Justin Herman Plaza, Market Street and The Embarcadero, San Francisco
When: 5 p.m. today
Tickets: Free
Contact: www.texasontour.com

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