Wreck Your Image

The New Old 97's

The Old 97's are:(1-r) Rhett, Murray, Phillip and Ken
photograph by Martin Menocal

On paper, Lollapalooza and the Old 97's look like a perfect match. After all, when Perry Farrell conceived the traveling showcase in 1991, the festival was about exposing new, groundbreaking artists to young, open-minded fans. And what could be more eye-opening to the Korn/Tool/Prodigy set than an alternative country band from Dallas? Best of all, with the release of their major label debut, Too Far to Care, a set so rock & roll that it's already got the y'alternative faithful arguing that it may be too rock & roll to qualify as the genre's first truly landmark album, the Old 97's were generating a bit of controversy. Yet, from Ice-T to Rage Against the Machine, Lollapalooza's history has not only been littered with controversial bands, it's also been defined by love 'em or hate 'em groups that defy categorization. Again, the Old 97's look like a good fit, right? Wrong. After completing a recent three-week second stage stint, frontman Rhett Miller has concluded that the Lollapalooza/Old 97's theory ultimately wound up looking a lot better on paper than from the stage.

"It was pretty fascinating," says Miller, who's currently preparing a Lollapalooza diary he plans to e-mail to fans, friends, and family. "There's no way that these kids dressed up in Marilyn Manson clothes and there to see Korn were going to get us. It just wasn't going to happen, so it was also a little frustrating. The funny part that eventually became a bitter joke amongst the band members was that by the second or third song we'd have already cleared off the front of the stage. And with all the kids gone, there would be one guy left standing there -- a six-foot redheaded dork with a notepad. Of course, he's the local rock critic who thinks we're `brilliant.' Everyone else is gone. But I suppose there's worse things -- he could of hated us too."

So far, pleasing the dorks with notepads has been easy for the Old 97's. In fact, in what would appear to be an act of collusion, rock critics nationwide have spent their summers making near identical declarations: the Old 97's are a fine rock outfit, but no longer an alternative country band. "I'm not sure if Elektra is paying them all to say that, or if they're just now getting it, but either way it's good," says Miller on the media's repositioning. "I'm glad the angle has turned a bit, because it was building towards some kind of saturation point, and we're really just a rock band."

In truth, the Old 97's first two albums, 1994's self-released Hitchhike to Rhome and 1995's Wreck Your Life, on Chicago's self-anointed alt-country indie label, Bloodshot Records, went a long way towards defining the No Depression movement. While both albums sported their share of giddy rig-rock/cow-punk rockers ("Victoria," "Doreen"), the inherent twang of Wreck Your Life's sarcastic waltzes ("W.I.F.E") positioned the band as an organic, roots-driven answer to the lazy Gram Parsons-influenced country-rock of colleagues like Son Volt and Wilco. And for a genre with lots of hype but no real stars, four kids that hailed from Texas looked as good of bet as any to bank on.

Then, after a huge South by Southwest-driven bidding war that ended with the band signing to Elektra, the Dallas quartet toyed with hiring Don Was or T-Bone Burnett to produce what would become Too Far to Care. That news, and the subsequent fear of an overproduced debut, didn't sit well with the alternative country community. Surely, though, they couldn't have predicted what came next. Wally Gagel, a producer who'd built a career working with alternative rock acts like Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, got the nod instead.

Exacerbating the situation even further was Miller telling the Dallas Observer, "We don't need help sounding like we're from Texas. We need a guy who could make us sound like a rock band." And that's exactly what Gagel did; Too Far to Care is defiantly more Clash than Carter Family, and could easily be viewed as the No Depression equivalent to Dylan plugging in at Newport. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the album's closing cut, "Four Leaf Clover," on which the band is paired with former X shriek-diva, Exene Cervenkova, who trades verses with Miller over a bed of swirling guitars and punk rhythms. At that moment, how could anyone mistake the Old 97's as anything but a rock band?

"Sure, we made a rock record," says the 26-year-old Miller, "but we didn't necessarily set out saying we're not going to do any country either. We just wanted to make a record that didn't pander. It's funny, because people have said, `So, you set out to make a rock record because you're on a major label?' No, it's more like when we were on Bloodshot we set out to make an alternative country record. They pushed us into putting "W.I.F.E." on that record. This record is a lot more honest in terms of what we want to be doing musically. God, I hope that doesn't sound too defensive."

If that does sound defensive, perhaps it's only because Miller's well aware that he's potentially leaving behind a scene that's been very good to him. In fact, he says the Old 97's agreed to headline this year's No Depression Tour -- named for and sponsored by the magazine/bible of the alternative country industry -- as a kind of farewell nod to the magazine and the fanbase it helped fostered. "It was just like, `Thanks. Thanks for being around for us,'" Miller says. And yet, because he's seen his name attached to the words "alternative" and "country" so many times, Miller also says he's become frustrated by the whole notion of "alternative country" altogether.

"We never really wanted to be in that genre, we just kind of got stuck there," explains Miller. "And it's hard not to be a little bit pissy about it. But now, I think it was all kind of contrived to begin with. We're not like the Carter Family, none of us grew up on farms and had no choice but to play back-porch music. Every single one of these bands was, at one point or another, a punk band -- or worse. So, it's not like this all didn't get kind of conjured up to begin with. It did. And after all, we just made some records. I didn't go to a marketing team and ask what would be big in 1996. I won't feel guilt about that. I'll feel guilt about other stuff."

The first thing Miller says he does feel guilty about is disclosing, in not just one, but several interviews, the first and last name of the ex-girlfriend he's written about in so many songs. Clearly, she could have figured out her role in the Old 97's evolution without the wasted newsprint. The second, and perhaps more shameful source of Miller's guilt are the years between 1986 and 1990, the period Miller spent as an unabashed teen folkie in Dallas.

"I was proud to be pegged as a folkie," says Miller. "It was before the Indigo Girls got so huge, not that they were the catalyst for folk becoming ridiculous again. But I think I liked being in a long line of people who continued the American tradition of storytelling, songwriting, and acoustic guitar playing. I thought that was very cool. And to tell you truth, I thought there was something very intellectual about being a folk singer, especially and particularly because I was 16. When you're 16, whether it `means' something and is intellectual is an issue."

And while Miller feels somewhat liable for spearheading Deep Ellum's coffeehouse folk revival as a pretty-boy teenager with quirky songs, he says it's only been of late that he's been able to look back at that period of his career with any kind of positive slant.

"I suppose it was kind of liberating," says Miller. "You don't have to have a band. It's all about writing songs and building the courage to perform them, even if you're all alone. To some degree, that experience translates now. Just before this interview, I was sitting in this hotel room working on a song and it could have easily been a song I was working on back then -- acoustic guitar, melody, and words. But now, I have the Old 97's machine to crank it through and have it come out the other end sounding like a rock song. And, in some ways, it's okay for me to do that because of what I did back then."

According to the critics eager to build a Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards foundation for the Old 97's, it's been bassist/vocalist Murray Hammond that's been the other crucial part of the Old 97's machinery. In fact, the pair work so well together primarily because they've been together throughout both of Miller's post-folkie projects: The Sleepy Heroes and Rhett's Exploding. While the former band was a competent though wholly insignificant stab at acoustic Liverpool-era pop, Rhett's Exploding was the punk disaster that made the duo question everything they stood for and ultimately start up the Old 97's.

"Rhett's Exploding is the stuff I really feel guilty about," laughs Miller. "That was essentially a punk rock band, pre-Nirvana. Then Nirvana broke and I started looking at the bands doing that thing really well, and I thought, `Why am I doing this kind of music when it's not even the kind I do best? And of the kind I do best, I may not even be the greatest in this city, but I should be doing it because it's honest.' It made for some bleak times, and Murray and I actually quit music for awhile. The Old 97's definitely began as in response to that period."

After a year of playing to a small handful of friends in Dallas, Miller says he actually considered moving the Old 97's to Austin. "Austin was where I always wanted to be, but it was too overcrowded by musicians already. Now I'm glad we didn't move, because the competition is so stiff there and it was easier to stand out in Dallas as a big fish in a small musical pond."

Instead of moving to Austin, Miller and Hammond stayed in Dallas, joining Killbilly, a seminal punk/bluegrass outfit. Although they kept the Old 97's together, Killbilly's take-no-prisoners work ethic wound up causing the pair to redefine their goals for their side project.

"Essentially, Killbilly taught us it's more fun to rock out than it is to be a real lazy back-porch kind of band," says Miller. "But until that point, I didn't have much self-awareness. I had this moderate success as a folkie and was told I'd have all this big record label attention, and it never came. It got more and more frustrating, and I worried about it more and more. And Rhett's Exploding was the last straw, because it was a really terrible band. But thank God I got all that out of my system. What if somebody had come along and I got signed at the age of 17 like they said would happen? I'd be over the hill and washed up by now."

In truth, convincing Dallas that Miller wasn't already washed up became the first, and perhaps toughest, hurdle for the Old 97's. Even after Hitchhike to Rhome, a 15-song full-length recorded in three days, earned acclaim in the regional press and fanzines, Dallas wasn't buying. Instead, the band found a fanbase in Chicago, where the Old 97's hooked up with Bloodshot Records, a hip indie that had become alternative country's equivalent to Sub-Pop. After recording Wreck your Life for the label, the Old 97's came home heroes. "When people heard about Chicago, we suddenly started to make sense to people in Dallas," says Miller.

Miller admits that even after the band had begun drawing local crowds, some Dallas clubowners and musicians refused to give the Old 97's the credit they were due -- in part because of Miller's folkie baggage. "Robert Wilonsky still won't give it up," says Miller of the former Dallas Observer music critic turned sportswriter. "The last article he wrote about us in L.A. was all about me as a teen folkie. It's really frustrating. Come on, my mom doesn't even remember that anymore."

Could there be a time in the not-so-distant future that Miller will tell writers that even his mom doesn't remember her son's No Depression period?

"I don't think the alternative country thing will ever be the kind of albatross the teen folkie thing is," he answers. "We'll always sound a little country, sounding like we sound. We'll always sound legitimately, to whatever extent, country. I'm not that worried, because I have a feeling we have a couple records in our future that will push those boundaries a little bit. I would love to make a record that sounds like the Everly Brothers doing a British Invasion record -- real rich harmonies on poppy, upbeat songs. But now, it's just kind of fun to think about, because it's a year away."

More immediately, the band has plans to release an indie single in September and a Elektra EP early next year -- both featuring a pair of songs recorded with Waylon Jennings. Even better, Miller says there's an outside chance they'll fall off the road for a few weeks next year to back Jennings for a full album. How did the pair hook up? This paper. After seeing the Old 97's at a festival in Atlanta he was also playing, Jennings was quoted as saying, "They're great. They're country" ["No Flies on Waylo," Vol. 15, No. 47].

"We got a copy of the Chron and called to thank him, which is when his manager told us Waylon was talking about recording with us. Not much of a story, but that's how it happened," recounts Miller.

A better story is how Miller got to pay back the influence of his idol by teaching Jennings a thing or two about English phonetics. "He didn't know what the word `elixir' meant," explains Miller, who used the word in a song recorded at the session. "He'd never heard the word, and we explained it as a cure-all, remedy type thing. He said, `All the drugs I've done and I don't even know what an elixir is.' He couldn't pronounce it either. Finally, he's in the vocal booth and gets to that line and messes up three or four times. I didn't want him to be bummed out. The line is `prescribe an elixir.' So I say, `Waylon, imagine you got two lesbians and one of them is named Annie. And what you're going to say is, "Annie-licks-her."' So he says, `You're sick. I like you.' That response was his big line, the great joke of the session, and of course, he nailed it."

Even with a great story like that, skeptics are still going to grumble about the Old 97's working with Jennings and the fact that it won't do much to distance them from alternative country. "I know Wilco kind of made a big point recently about not being alternative country," says Miller. "I don't want it to be an issue. Those people are all nice people, those bands are all our friends. So it's not like we're paranoid about getting stuck there because it's a ghetto. I'm just tired of the fact that it's all a lot of people want to talk about. But if we get a chance to work with Waylon again, we're not going to say, `No.' He's a hero."

In the meantime, Miller says the band will tour in support of Too Far to Care well into next year. He says he'd eventually like to hook up with bands like Pavement and Guided by Voices, admitting Elektra would probably prefer they go out with bands like the Wallflowers or Counting Crows. Either way, Elektra is behind this band and this album -- in a big, corporate way.

"I don't want to sound like company man, but they've been so awesome," says Miller. "They haven't pushed us yet to do anything stupid. I don't think they expect us to be a huge hit, like Nada Surf was for them last year. I think they realize we're the kind of band that could have a career and be going for a long time on their label. I think they also recognize that because we have melody and lyrics, we have an outside chance at having a hit and becoming a successful band."

In fact, it's easy to imagine that Elektra is more than happy about the chance to market the Old 97's shift from alternative country to good ol' rock & roll -- even if the kids at Lollapalooza haven't caught on yet. And even if they do catch on, the band may be miles ahead, in whatever direction the machinery takes them.

"Murray is really amazing about ambient stuff, not in the electronica sense of the word, but more in the Mazzy Star kind of texture sense," says Miller. "So, maybe not the next record, but a little later, we're talking about a real quiet and beautiful kind of ambient record.

"Hell, I don't know what's going to happen with the Old 97's per se, but I do think we're going to keep moving -- certainly less Bloodshot, less alternative country, and less No Depression, each time."

The Old 97's and Blue Mountain, an `alternative country' band, play Liberty Lunch Friday, August 1.

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