Not long ago, a certain Houston club manager came to the following conclusion about one of his favorite Texas acts: "The best thing about Old 97's is that people think they're a country band. But they're not; they're a pop band."
And therein lies the magic of the puckish Dallas quartet: its ability to execute such an immaculate deception. None of the Old 97's, after all, was raised on a chicken farm in the sticks. While growing up, they were party to the same classic rock and Top 40 radio fodder as any other suburban kid coming of age in the '70s and '80s, even if they did eventually retreat into punk, folk and roots country. So, yes, Old 97's are pulling a fast one, and they're more than happy to fess up about it.
"He's completely, 100 percent right," says Old 97's singer/guitarist Rhett Miller, responding with a chuckle to the club manager's underhanded compliment. "The pop song-writing formula and the traditional American song-writing formula are real close. We come from a background of listening to a lot of British Invasion stuff -- especially the Kinks. And we come from that more than people realize."
Tell that to the burly trucker types and cowboys who seem to be lurking in every cranny of the Fabulous Satellite Lounge whenever Old 97's perform there. Obviously, those folks didn't pay a $5 cover to witness the soiling of Hank Williams's legacy by the musical equivalent of four city schleps run amuck in a Western wear outlet. No, most likely what they hear in Miller's hollowed-out tenor, the persistent twang and wobbly tremolo sustains of guitarist Ken Bethea and the revved-up shuffles of drummer Philip Peeples and bassist Murry Hammond is something heaps more substantial than the average alt-country novelty.
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Even so, the clean-cut, twentysomething majority at a typical Old 97's show is apt to hear things a little differently. The perceptions of a few might run closer to how much the dandy lead lick in "W. TX Teardrops" reminds them of Led Zeppelin's honky-tonk hoot "Hot Dog." To others, the nostalgic touches on the world-weary numbers such as "Salome" and "Big Brown Eyes" vaguely register as sounds heard offhand when, as kids, they'd pilfer their parents' Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard vinyl. Maybe some are old enough to remember when Jason and the Scorchers and X were doing just this sort of thing -- that is, mingling the big-city immediacy of punk with the back-porch intimacy of country -- with similar aplomb. Quite possibly, though, most are struck by little more than how vehemently Old 97's can rock a room.
"There's some bands in Dallas whose crowd consists of 14- and 15-year-old girls. But we'll get adults and we'll get kids and we'll get freaks," Miller says. "In a way, that's got to be good. It means we've got some crossover appeal -- whatever that means."
As the band's chief lyricist and its primary mouthpiece, the 26-year-old Miller has been assigned the task (more or less) of creating his own version of the American myth. And if what he's come up with on the band's Elektra debut, Too Far to Care, isn't always easy to take, it's almost always moving. Largely devoid of the vast spaces, endless horizons and romance of the road that crowd the visions of many of his C&W heroes, Miller's depleted frontier landscape is instead littered with reminders of his own suffocating reality. "In a hotel room just off Times Square it's like a closet / I can watch the dancing class go round," he mewls in "Broadway," a wrenching life-on-the-road saga tinged with anger as much as self-pity. "In a hotel room that costs as much as my apartment / I can watch the working class go down / And it's enough to make a crooked man go straight."
If it isn't homesickness, it's the opposite sex playing the leading role in Miller's hell. "I'm sick to death of love, and I'm sick to death of trying," he confesses to a lover in the desperate, tear-stained ballad "Salome." Still more of Miller's tales are little more than nightmares inhabited by femme fatales with a taste for geek blood. On Too Far to Care's first single, "Timebomb," the music's rousing, freight-train momentum is undercut by a lament in which the singer is reduced to blubbering to his mother: "I've got timebomb in my mind mom / I've got it badly for a stick-legged girl / She's gonna kill me / And I don't mean softly."
Not surprisingly, Miller was a bit of a loner growing up. As early as high school, he had struck out on his own as a folkie singer/songwriter. One of his most prominent gigs as a solo acoustic performer was an unlikely late-'80s opening slot for the Stiv Bator-led Lords of the New Church at Dallas's Club Clearview.
A year later, Miller had found a kindred spirit -- and a caretaker, of sorts -- in the older, more experienced Hammond. "I had started gigging when I was 15, and Murry produced a record I did in high school," says Miller. "He gave me my first gig; he let me hang out at his house when I was going through the 'I hate my folks' phase. We've been friends for a decade now."
Like most native Texans, some childhood exposure to Buddy Holly and Willie Nelson was unavoidable for both Miller and Hammond. But the country bug didn't bite down hard on either of them until, as distant devotees of Los Angeles's hard-core scene, they discovered seminal punk-tonkers X. Ever since, the two have never hesitated to pay tribute to their West Coast forerunners. In 1993, when Miller and Hammond rounded up guitarist Bethea (who lived in the same apartment complex as his two new bandmates) and formed Old 97's, among the first songs the trio put to tape was a cover of X's "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes," which wound up on the Dallas-released debut, Hitchhike to Rhome. Eventually, the admiration became mutual, and it continues today. Former X chanteuse Exene Cervenkova duets with Miller on "Four Leaf Clover," Too Far to Care's final track. Miller returned the favor by singing backup in the studio for Cervenkova's latest band, Auntie Christ.
But it wasn't just X that inspired the band's C&W direction.
"We were sick of rock bands," says Miller.
So sick of them, in fact, that their original idea for Old 97's (the name taken from "The Wreck of the Old 97," a 1906 ballad turned into a 1950s hit by Johnny Cash) was to make do without a drummer. But that lasted only about seven months: Peeples was hired in the fall of 1993, and gradually, Old 97's conceded their debt to certain, more commercial influences. While their 1995 release, Wreck Your Life, on Bloodshot Records out of Chicago, perpetuated country's old-school formulas to an often stodgy degree, Too Far to Care shows the group not only surrendering to its more contemporary instincts, but flaunting them.
In most respects, Too Far to Care has the feel of a major-label event. Aided by the production of East Coast alt-rock stylist Wally Gagel (Tanya Donnelly, Sebadoh), Peeples's drums -- little more than feeble accompaniment on Wreck Your Life -- sound like they were shot out of a cannon, and layer upon layer of reverbed guitars drive home the disc's near-relentless hooks. Meanwhile, Miller's singing, with only the slightest studio enhancement, has never sounded better. All of which makes Too Far to Care a release tailor-made for radio, yes?
That may have been the intention, but Miller, for one, isn't so sure heavy airplay is in the band's future -- yet. "It's funny, because we thought 'Timebomb' would be [a good] first single. Then the record got finished, and it was too chaotic -- nobody will ever play that song."
"[But] I think if we keep thinking that way, we'll get really frustrated," Miller adds with an audible sigh. "Our music doesn't sound like music that gets played on the radio."
Maybe so, but it should be played on the radio.
"Could you become a program director?" asks Miller, his tone dead serious.
While they wait for that unlikely turn of events, Old 97's can always take solace in knowing they have the blessing of at least one of country's old guard. The group recently entered the studio to cut a few tracks with diehard 97's fan Waylon Jennings. One, "Iron Road," was written by Hammond specifically for Jennings. The tunes are slated for seven-inch release in September.
Still, says Miller, "the country angle means that it's really hard to make a fan base, especially in the South, because kids grew up having to hate it in order to be cool. I'm sure that sometime during my youth I even uttered the phrase, 'I like everything but country.'
"It's like the artistic version of scrapple up North."
Old 97's perform Thursday, July 31, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5. Blue Mountain opens. For info, call 869-
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