Old 97’s – They’re a pain in the neck
I’m laid up right now,” explains Rhett Miller, lead singer and guitarist for the Old 97’s. “I have a muscle spasm in my neck. There’s a muscle in your neck that’s 6 inches long, and mine spasmed and became 2 inches long.” It’s not that unusual an injury, actually — but how many people have had it happen while performing at their own record release party?
“It was the third song into our set, and I was headbanging — or it was a lot like headbanging, except it was a bluegrass thing,” says Miller. “I don’t know. I guess if it was metal we were playing, it would have been headbanging, but it hurt.”
But no mere muscle spasm can keep this Dallas foursome down for long. Their new record, Wreck Your Life, a witty trip down the cowpunk Texas road, came out on Bloodshot Records in October, and the Old 97’s subsequently began taking their tunes on the road to the rest of America. It’s about time they got outta Dallas.
“There’s no real reason for Dallas to be here. It’s like, they built so many churches that they had to build a city. But I like it. Most of the girls I’ve dated have been from Dallas, so ….” Miller leaves it at that.
The band began playing together in March 1993 and cut their first demo without a drummer. The demo was recorded down the road apiece in Austin at Cedar Creek Recording, a place some alternative-country fans might consider a place of worship, given some of the acts that have tuned their instruments there.
“We got in there just four hours after Uncle Tupelo had finished recording Anodyne,” Miller explains. “I didn’t really know the magnitude of it then. That’s my favorite album by them.”
OK, the music, right? It has this deep, almost rockabilly bass, played by Murry Hammond. (“It seems like Murry and I have known each other forever,” Miller says. “We’ve been working together since I was a teenager.”
The drummer, Philip Peeples, has near-perfect timing; he and Hammond have got it down on the Bill Monroe remake “My Sweet Blue-Eyed Darlin’ “. Add in the second guitar of Ken Bethea and the youthful, energetic, yet respect-your-elders voice of Miller, and what we’ve got here is a sweet, melodic, but borderline aggressive 12-song journey that’ll make this record the only one you need for that trip down Route 10. I’d love to describe it as electric bluegrass, so I will.
“Victoria,” the opening track, is a song about a quiet Berkeley girl who can’t deal with the earthquakes, so she moves to Texas, “where nothing ever moves.” True story?
“Sure. Actually her name was Vivian, but I had to change it or she’d get pissed,” Miller quips. “I think she dated Henry Rollins, too. In fact, I think she cheated on me with him.”
Cheating aside, the Old 97’s brightest days are yet to come, and most likely to a town near you. The band just completed a monthlong tour through the Northeast and the Midwest, and if you didn’t catch them this time, don’t fret — they’ll go right back at it after the holidays.
“I like most cities,” says Miller, “some a little better than others. I really like Chicago. But you know what else is cool? Madison. It’s like Austin, except it’s colder, you know? St. Louis is fun, and of course so is New York.”
The band tends to plug in and open it up a bit live, which translates to a rockin’ good time. But don’t expect to see Miller doing any headbanging.
“I’ve got an alternative to that now — pogoing. I hear it’s good for the spine.”