FOREWORD: Old 97’s could’ve and should’ve been the band that blew open Country radio’s doors for the entire independent ‘alt-Country’ scene to come rushing through. In a fair world, Old ‘97s and their deserving contemporaries (Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo, Ryan Adams’ Whiskeytown) would’ve been the cream of the crop and picked to click at Country radio.But the conservative twits at commercially-sponsored Country radio in the ‘90s would never offer airtime to rock-leaning contemporary artists that’d put a strain on the syrupy ballads feeding the system – even if they did get signed by a major label (you know, the guys who give payola, weed, and coke to lame Country DJ’s to play syrupy ballads).But alas, Old 97’s fate was sealed and they kept selling out small clubs instead of stadiums. I got to speak to guitarist Ken Bethea and bassist Murray Hammond in ’97. I was originally hoping to talk to band-leading composer, Rhett Miller, but that didn’t happen. Anyway, his band mates knew plenty about Texas music (giving a shout out to the Butthole Surfers) and proved very resourceful.After this piece (which ran in a highly popular porn mag), Old 97’s hit the studio again for ‘99s scrappy Fight Songs and ‘01s equally fine Satellite Rides. ‘04s raw-boned Drag It Up wasn’t up to snuff, but ‘08s Blame It On Gravity made a nice comeback. Rhett Miller, meanwhile, put out respectable solo albums such as ‘02s The Instigator and ‘06s The Believer, plus an eponymous ’09 full-length. This article originally appeared in Gallery Magazine.
Freewheeling neo-traditionalist alternative Country quartet, Old 97’s hail from Dallas, Texas. They pick up where early ‘80s cowpunk combos like the Del-Lords, Rank & File, and Jason & the Scorchers left off, forging through twangy Western guitar riffs and hip-shakin’ rockabilly beats with punk attitude and verve. Old 97’s proves roots music can exist outside of its specific time and place.
Copping their numeric moniker from a song made popular by Johnny Cash, “The Wreck Of Old 97,” these spirited hipsters recently released their third full-length disc, Too Far To Care. Gaining momentum from ‘94s Hitchhike To Rhome and its well-received follow-up, Wreck Your Life, Old 97’s seek acceptance among the underground rock and Country audiences spurned by mainstream radio. While banjos and mandolins were used on Hitchhike To Rhome, they’ve now become more relaxed with the standard bass, guitar, and drums format.
“Nashville accepts Garth Brooks over us because people are convinced that’s what modern Country sounds like,” bassist Murray Hammond insists. “But we like old-style Country music. In fact, I was always engrossed in the chugging ole-timey stuff. We atke a lump of rock clay and stick Country in it. And yet, we’re more influenced by simple Appalachian bluegrass tunes than George Jones and Merle Haggard. We twist ‘60s and ‘70s rock and punk energy. The stuff from the ‘80s and ‘90s hasn’t found its way into our sound yet.”
“As a guitar player, I was a big AC/DC fan,” admits Ken Bethea. “I was into Angus Young, but never liked Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, or Jimi Hendrix. I never listened to any Country besides Merle Haggard. I also loved listening to X because they meshed punk and rockabilly. Then I got into Joe Ely and Jerry Jeff Walker when I went to school in Austin.”
Clearly, Bethea doesn’t try to model himself after any other guitarists, whether rock-based or Country-Blues-based. “Basically, I try not to play, the melody of our songs, but instead go against the grain to give it a certain unique charm.”
Since Old 97’s are worried about being perceived as a straight-up Nashville Country act, they decided not to allow someone like Dwight Yoakam’s producer to record Too Far To Care. Instead, they let Boston-based Wally Gagel (who has worked with indie alt-rockers Sebadoh, Superchunk, and Julianna Hatfield) handle the chores.
“We never said we were indie until we die like the Minutemen did,” Bethea claims. “We just want to thrash and bash and make good-sounding records. The biggest difference between the new album and its predecessors is that we had three months – instead of two weeks – to rehearse. We had pre-production time to work on song ideas and give it more of a kick. Plus, we had a bigger studio to work in, better food, and a nicer atmosphere.”
Perhaps the trusty “Big Brown Eyes” best exemplifies Old 97’s sound. Guitarist-composer Rhett Miller sings the melancholy hearty-on-the-sleeve lyrics over rubbery bass and drummer Philip Peeples’ ticking rhythm. Its lonesome prairie ambiance and honky tonk attitude brings back the agility and delicate sentiments of deceased Country-rock legend Gram Parsons. “Big Brown Eyes” could be taken seriously or shrugged off as a tongue-in-cheek ditty.
‘We want to be fun, but not funny,” Bethea declares. “Rhett decided Too Far To Care would make a decent title, since it’s a vague reference to self-destruction. He’s being self-effacing about a broken relationship.”
Changing moods and styles from song to song, Old 97’s stampede down a whiskey-soaked highway on “Time Bomb,” hearken back to Country balladry on “Barrier Reef,” then shift despair-ridden “Broadway” into a rollicking garage anthem. Hammond’s hasty banjo gives the anachronistic “W. TX. Teardrops” a hillbilly boogie bent and the bouncy “Streets Of Where I’m From” perfectly balances its alternative rock ambitions with Country & Western savvy.
Due to its size and cultural diversity, Texas is home to a wide variety of Blues, folk, pop, rock, and Country artists. There’s T-Bone Walker, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, and an endless list of musical progenitors. Why such a varied menu?
“Possibly because it’s so far away from both Coasts, Texas artists retain one unified identity with different subcultures, ” Hammond rebuts. “People are raised to think Texas is unique. Look at Butthole Surfers, the quintessential cool band that had its own thing going on since the early ‘80s. They may be hardcore, but they run the spectrum from soft to loud, hard to quiet. They have punchy rhythms and in-your-face lyrics. Some people think their wordplay is heavy-handed or insulting. I just think they have a commanding presence.”
In spite of Country radio’s disturbing lack of serious young artists on their play lists, insurgent bands such as Old 97’s, Moonshine Willie, Waco Brothers, Slobberbone, and BRS-49 continue to gain a foothold by playing smaller venues. Perhaps some day one of those combos will explode and everyone will ride their coattails to stardom.
Hell. Before the Eagles took Jackson Browne’s “Take It Easy” for a chart ride in ’72, Parson’s underrated Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, and Emmylou Harris were caught in the same Catch-22 trap suffocating these modern visionaries. Let’s hope they’re not stranded too long.