Old 97’s – The Year Of The Old 97’s
It struck me right outside of Waco, Texas, that world-famous American center for the furthering of religious understanding and human compassion. On my way down Interstate 35 in the early morning hours bound for Austin and the annual cacophony of music called South By Southwest, I was wrestling with a musical riddle of the caliber that can drive you crazy; Where did I hear that song, who does that voice remind me of? The voice of Rhett Miller, 26, the energetic singer and acoustic guitar player in the Dallas quartet Old 97’s had bugged me since I heard their debut album, Hitchhike To Rhome, while I was living in Austin in ’94.
Driving down from meeting the band on their home turf, I was listening to their much-anticipated major-label debut, Too Far To Care (due out on Elektra in June), when the black truckstop coffee suddenly cleared my mind. Miller could easily have stepped in as Robert Smith, the singer for English pop-gothic band The Cure, had he only been willing to trade his nerd-looking glasses for lipstick. But of course my initial angle on the Old 97’s, their utterly cool version of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” off their debut album, hadn’t exactly pointed me in the right direction.
This annoyance off my mind, I was able to turn up the volume of the downright most entertaining album so far from the already overanalyzed current generation of alt-country aficionados and rewind the tape 3/4 of a year back to the summer of ’96, when the Old 97’s visited Norway for the first time. The band did four gigs in a short week and started out by blowing the ears off of a selection of major record company label managers that were instructed by their American home offices to treat the band generously, to aid the ensuing bidding war in the wake of the band’s showcase at SXSW ’96.
During the weekend, at the festival Down On The Farm, they hooked up with fellow Texan Jimmie Dale Gilmore for the first time and did rousing versions of Gilmore’s “Dallas” as one of many high points in sets which made it clear that country did not neccesarily have to be music for an older generation. But the real upper-cut came when the 97’s performed a late-night set on Monday at the Oslo celebrity nightspot the Smuget, mainly in front of seasoned musicians, journalists and music biz people. The owner of the club was there, and when the Old 97’s exploded all over his stage, I realized he’d had a flashback to the night in 1977 when the Sex Pistols tore down his club.
The Old 97’s took their name from “The Wreck of the Old 97”, an old song by Henry Whitter dating back to 1923, after a suggestion by the band’s resident train buff and bass player Murry Hammond, 32. The song describes a mail train railroad line leading from Virginia to North Carolina, where the wrecking of the Old 97 occurred. The song was immediately made into a million-selling hit by one of the earliest country recording artists, Vernon Dalhart (18831948). To current country listeners, the Johnny Cash version is the best-known.
I met up with the quartet at Hammond’s house just north of downtown Dallas, a couple of days before they made their way down to SXSW and a big showcase at the outdoor stage of Stubb’s Barbecue. Scattered around Murry’s living room are drummer Philip Peeples, 29, and lead guitarist Ken Bethea, 34. Their mood is very upbeat; it seems 1997 just has to be the year of the Old 97’s. “There is a lot more work behind this album than it was behind our last record, Wreck Your Life (Bloodshot 1995),” Miller says. “Back then we were scrounging for songs. This time we had way too many.”
Too Far To Care was recorded at the end of 1996 at a studio on a pecan orchard in Tornillo, Texas, about a half-hour outside of El Paso, with producer Wally Gagel, a musician/producer best known for his work with alternative-rock bands. Before the band settled on Gagel, they had been in contact with a couple of big-name producers, Don Was and T-Bone Burnett. (Was even did some rehearsals with the band but had to drop out when he was called in on short notice to work with that other insurgent country act, The Good Ole Rolling Stones Boys Band.)
All of the songs on Too Far To Care are originals, including re-recordings of one track each from their two earlier albums — “Four Leaf Clover” off Hitchhike To Rhome, and “Big Brown Eyes” off Wreck Your Life. The first one has been upgraded as a duet with punk icon Exene Cervenka of X. (The well-versed punker will recall that Exene showed an interest in country back in 1985 with the X side project band the Knitters.)
The new album is no big departure from the two first albums. The group’s signature sound has simply been expanded, the twang digs deeper, and the distinctions of Miller’s acoustic guitar and Hammond’s acoustic bass are clearer. On top of that sits their trademark vocal harmonies. Hammond, rumored to have been a card-carrying metal fan some years ago, brings the band furthest into country territory with his song “West Texas Teardrops”.