Old 97’s – More fun in the new world
Like so many songs by the Old 97’s over the years, the last song on their new record Blame It On Gravity spins a yarn about a love affair, but this love doesn’t go bad, and for once, the object of affection isn’t female. There are no stick-leg girls, pretty as pennies; no timebombs or claymores or women who don’t make eyes; no Victorias, Valentines, Doreens or Annettes.
In the song “The One”, it’s all about the band, four guys who have endured fifteen years of peaks and valleys, countless nightclubs and bars, half a dozen record labels, a bit of money, a flash of fame, not to mention the freefall of the music industry, and haven’t yet self-destructed. The affair may have started as love at first sight, two decades ago, around the time singer-songwriters Murry Hammond and Rhett Miller saw the Ramones together in Dallas, Texas, in the mid 1980s, but it has ripened into something closer to the climactic moment in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch when the battered outlaws walk knowingly, even joyfully, into a fight against overwhelming odds.
“The One” is ostensibly a goof about a band robbing a bank, otherwise known as the music industry, and it kicks off like that moment in the live show when the frontman introduces himself and the rest of the players to the audience. It’s a tongue-in-cheek ego trip, tinged with the exuberant ruefulness that characterizes so much of the Old 97’s’ music.
Rhett Miller, who wrote the song, starts by making fun of himself and whatever success the band has had: “I got a check for nothing/All made out to someone/I truly love myself.” Then he nods to Murry Hammond, fellow founder of the group named after that train wreck immortalized by Johnny Cash. “Murry says we’re going to take the money sometime/It might as well be this time.” He bows to Ken Bethea, whose surf-cowpunk guitar licks have defined the band’s sound from the start, giving the Old 97’s a huge, dreamy vibration to match the high romance and vamp of their lyrics. “Ken picked this bank at random/I said do we shoot them?/He said either way’s all right.” Finally, we get Philip Peeples, the underrated drummer, whose sticks have blasted for all these years like someone aiming an old-fashioned tommy gun at a plaster ceiling and clicking off the safety. “Whistlin boy, that’s Philip/He’s our drummer/He does the theme from Endless Summer/You know he’s waitin’ out in our ride.”
The band throws the money in the van and heads into the sunset, and it sounds like a good time, young guns getting high on their own success…except the band members aren’t so young anymore, the robbery is a distant memory, and the heist never made them rich. Written a decade ago, the oldest song on the new record, “The One” used to be about the bizarre wonders of success. Now that it has finally surfaced on Blame It On Gravity, due May 13 on New West Records, it’s about survival. Praise the Lord and pass the red eye gravy, the Old 97’s are still with us.
Miller first penned the song around the time of 1997’s Too Far To Care, the band’s major-label debut. “I wrote it right when we were getting signed in the midst of the courting process from all the major labels,” Miller said over a sandwich at his home in upstate New York, his wife Erica, sister-in-law Mandy, and his two kids, Max, 4, and Soleil, 2, stomping through nearby mud puddles on an early spring day. “We had eight or nine labels and whittled it down to four, and we milked those four who were vying for our contract for months: baseball games, hockey games, fancy dinners, trips to L.A., trips to New York. Talk about a different time. That would not be happening now, especially for a relatively unproven alt-country band. Oh My God.”
“I love that we got to be in the last wave of that,” Miller went on. “We got major-label money poured into our band. That’s a lot of marketing money, and a lot of muscle, and a lot of Leno appearances and Letterman appearances.” He credits his ability to have a solo career to that same era of big-time exposure, and yet he looks back on the opportunity as a dangerous one, too, an exterminating angel of less fortunate bands. “We got to be a part of that time, and yet we didn’t get broken by it.”
That’s why “The One” ends the record, Murry Hammond told me later. The band chose not to put the song on Too Far To Care because it could have been too easily mistaken for an obnoxious boast. These days, the hard-earned wisdom is unmistakable. “Now the band that’s singing that song has survived things,” Hammond said. “We’ve climbed some hills, and we’ve gone past them, and we’re sort of plopped down on the other side, dusting ourselves off, and giggling at each other.”
Miller says that sense of survival informs every song on Blame It On Gravity. “For me this record is all about that feeling of finally being comfortable in this band, and not feeling like we have to answer to any mega-corporation, or even necessarily to a fan-base contingent, the super alt-country people, or the popsters, or whatever. There’s something about doing it for us, just like when we started the Old 97’s to begin with. It was the idea that we should have no expectations beyond expecting the best work we can do every day. It just felt so good. When we talk about how excited we are about the record, it comes from that place.”
Blame It On Gravity, the band’s first studio album since 2004’s Drag It Up, arrives in a dramatically different era than the last record. A whole election cycle has passed, for one, and the Bush administration and its Texan baggage, always an issue for a band with Red River roots (see the Dixie Chicks), are on their way out. The alt-country scene, which has accompanied the band for most of its history, seems to have passed into twilight as a movement, a reminder that most of the bands that launched their careers at the same time as the Old 97’s have also gone to their long home. Finally, the collapse of the music business has altered the landscape to such a degree that the industry the band entered in the early 1990’s hardly seems to resemble the one they now inhabit.
The internet, from iTunes to YouTube, has turned the whole of popular culture into a single vast sensorium, or as Miller imagines it, a version of the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s futuristic ’70s comedy Sleeper. Walk inside, press a button, feel something.
In such an environment, when careers in music seem made of quicksilver, evanescent as moonlight, a band of no-longer-newly-minted rockers like the 97’s might be wise to call it quits and go into a less uncertain line of work. All of the band members have kids and mortgages. All are subject to the same bad weather as the rest of us, literally. When I spoke with lead guitarist Ken Bethea in March, a flash thunderstorm near White Rock Lake in Dallas threatened to drive the creek behind his house over the banks.