Old 97's - More fun in the new world
Like so many songs by the Old 97's over the years, the last song on their new record Blame It On Gravity spins a yarn about a love affair, but this love doesn't go bad, and for once, the object of affection isn't female. There are no stick-leg girls, pretty as pennies; no timebombs or claymores or women who don't make eyes; no Victorias, Valentines, Doreens or Annettes. In the song "The One", it's all about the band, four guys who have endured fifteen years of peaks and valleys, countless nightclubs and bars, half a dozen record labels, a bit of money, a flash of fame, not to mention the freefall of the music industry, and haven't yet self-destructed. The affair may have started as love at first sight, two decades ago, around the time singer-songwriters Murry Hammond and Rhett Miller saw the Ramones together in Dallas, Texas, in the mid 1980s, but it has ripened into something closer to the climactic moment in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch when the battered outlaws walk knowingly, even joyfully, into a fight against overwhelming odds. "The One" is ostensibly a goof about a band robbing a bank, otherwise known as the music industry, and it kicks off like that moment in the live show when the frontman introduces himself and the rest of the players to the audience. It's a tongue-in-cheek ego trip, tinged with the exuberant ruefulness that characterizes so much of the Old 97's' music. Rhett Miller, who wrote the song, starts by making fun of himself and whatever success the band has had: "I got a check for nothing/All made out to someone/I truly love myself." Then he nods to Murry Hammond, fellow founder of the group named after that train wreck immortalized by Johnny Cash. "Murry says we're going to take the money sometime/It might as well be this time." He bows to Ken Bethea, whose surf-cowpunk guitar licks have defined the band's sound from the start, giving the Old 97's a huge, dreamy vibration to match the high romance and vamp of their lyrics. "Ken picked this bank at random/I said do we shoot them?/He said either way's all right." Finally, we get Philip Peeples, the underrated drummer, whose sticks have blasted for all these years like someone aiming an old-fashioned tommy gun at a plaster ceiling and clicking off the safety. "Whistlin boy, that's Philip/He's our drummer/He does the theme from Endless Summer/You know he's waitin' out in our ride." The band throws the money in the van and heads into the sunset, and it sounds like a good time, young guns getting high on their own success...except the band members aren't so young anymore, the robbery is a distant memory, and the heist never made them rich. Written a decade ago, the oldest song on the new record, "The One" used to be about the bizarre wonders of success. Now that it has finally surfaced on Blame It On Gravity, due May 13 on New West Records, it's about survival. Praise the Lord and pass the red eye gravy, the Old 97's are still with us. Miller first penned the song around the time of 1997's Too Far To Care, the band's major-label debut. "I wrote it right when we were getting signed in the midst of the courting process from all the major labels," Miller said over a sandwich at his home in upstate New York, his wife Erica, sister-in-law Mandy, and his two kids, Max, 4, and Soleil, 2, stomping through nearby mud puddles on an early spring day. "We had eight or nine labels and whittled it down to four, and we milked those four who were vying for our contract for months: baseball games, hockey games, fancy dinners, trips to L.A., trips to New York. Talk about a different time. That would not be happening now, especially for a relatively unproven alt-country band. Oh My God." "I love that we got to be in the last wave of that," Miller went on. "We got major-label money poured into our band. That's a lot of marketing money, and a lot of muscle, and a lot of Leno appearances and Letterman appearances." He credits his ability to have a solo career to that same era of big-time exposure, and yet he looks back on the opportunity as a dangerous one, too, an exterminating angel of less fortunate bands. "We got to be a part of that time, and yet we didn't get broken by it." That's why "The One" ends the record, Murry Hammond told me later. The band chose not to put the song on Too Far To Care because it could have been too easily mistaken for an obnoxious boast. These days, the hard-earned wisdom is unmistakable. "Now the band that's singing that song has survived things," Hammond said. "We've climbed some hills, and we've gone past them, and we're sort of plopped down on the other side, dusting ourselves off, and giggling at each other." Miller says that sense of survival informs every song on Blame It On Gravity. "For me this record is all about that feeling of finally being comfortable in this band, and not feeling like we have to answer to any mega-corporation, or even necessarily to a fan-base contingent, the super alt-country people, or the popsters, or whatever. There's something about doing it for us, just like when we started the Old 97's to begin with. It was the idea that we should have no expectations beyond expecting the best work we can do every day. It just felt so good. When we talk about how excited we are about the record, it comes from that place." Blame It On Gravity, the band's first studio album since 2004's Drag It Up, arrives in a dramatically different era than the last record. A whole election cycle has passed, for one, and the Bush administration and its Texan baggage, always an issue for a band with Red River roots (see the Dixie Chicks), are on their way out. The alt-country scene, which has accompanied the band for most of its history, seems to have passed into twilight as a movement, a reminder that most of the bands that launched their careers at the same time as the Old 97's have also gone to their long home. Finally, the collapse of the music business has altered the landscape to such a degree that the industry the band entered in the early 1990's hardly seems to resemble the one they now inhabit. The internet, from iTunes to YouTube, has turned the whole of popular culture into a single vast sensorium, or as Miller imagines it, a version of the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen's futuristic '70s comedy Sleeper. Walk inside, press a button, feel something. In such an environment, when careers in music seem made of quicksilver, evanescent as moonlight, a band of no-longer-newly-minted rockers like the 97's might be wise to call it quits and go into a less uncertain line of work. All of the band members have kids and mortgages. All are subject to the same bad weather as the rest of us, literally. When I spoke with lead guitarist Ken Bethea in March, a flash thunderstorm near White Rock Lake in Dallas threatened to drive the creek behind his house over the banks. Yet the Old 97's come to the new era with a measured optimism about their future, a justified feeling that their seventh record is among their very best. Bethea sets the tone. "This is going to sound goofy, but it's kind of the truth. I knew I was going to have a chance to have unlimited recording, and I wanted to make the best guitar record I have personally ever made, which I did. There's no question in my mind." It didn't quite sound like false modesty when Bethea said he didn't get good at guitar till the last few years; on this record, he says, he finally found the time and the space to prove his mettle. "Anything I can think of in my head, I can play. I wanted the chance to actually sit down and do it and not have any reservations." No easy state of mind to achieve after a stretch of hard luck and division that culminated in the 2004 release of Drag It Up. Miller, Hammond and Bethea each have their own ambivalent way of talking about the experience of making that record, a bare-bones effort cut in a few weeks in Los Angeles. Striving for a sense of immediacy, they worked on a vintage eight-track recording system. For Bethea, whatever the result, it wasn't much fun to make. For Miller, the end result lacked "pizzazz." "When we all listen to it now," he says, "we don't hear that spark." Hammond is more philosophical. "The last record is unique in our catalogue," he explains. "It was medicine. It was an attempt to try to restore ourselves, to try and resuscitate ourselves. When Rhett went solo, it was a hard time in the band. He didn't talk about it in the press that way. In fact, he spun it the other way. According to Rhett, we were big cheerleaders of the solo thing. What we were, we were cheerleaders of him as a friend, but the solo thing was very difficult for us, because we'd lost our record deal, and we didn't play hardly at all. We were sitting around unemployed while we read about Rhett going out and doing shows and playing Old 97's music with another band, and we're sitting there looking at our finances, thinking maybe we should get a job. We felt disconnected from the band in a way we never had before." No one quite says it, but if there was ever a moment when the Old 97's might have disbanded, it was then. Shortly after the band's fifth album, 2001's Satellite Rides, hit the Billboard charts -- a feat the band had never accomplished before -- Elektra Records dropped a bomb: They dropped the band. A year later, Miller, still with Elektra, released The Instigator, his first solo record since high school. Produced by Jon Brion, The Instigator received all the major-label love that Satellite Rides had lacked, and it got great reviews. If it had been a hit, who knows? The 97's might never have found their way back to each other. But they did, and the stripped-down Drag It Up was the result. "We needed to do something kind of radical to get us back on our feet," Hammond said, "and that was the radical pill we needed to swallow." The course of treatment worked, and a few songs on it have become as beloved as anything in the Old 97's catalogue, in particular "Won't Be Home", with which they opened a show at La Zona Rosa in Austin last December to wild enthusiasm. Still, in the record's wake came several projects that seemed to put a period on an entire era in the life of the band: a hits package put out by Rhino, with liner notes by Robert Christgau; a live album, Alive And Wired, showcasing the 97's at Gruene Hall in Central Texas; and Miller's sophomore solo disc The Believer (released by Verve Forecast in 2006), a creative high point that turned out a commercial disappointment, at least to the label. "I felt like top to bottom it was a really good record," Miller said, "and then it came out, and 60 days in, the record label pulled the plug and called me at home. I'd missed most of [daughter] Soleil's life, because she was born two weeks before the record came out, and I'd been on tour. The record label president called and said, 'The record's dead'. I said, 'You promised a year. It's been three months.' He said, 'It's only sold 30,000 units.' Three months? For me? I mean what did he expect? That was rough. It took a bunch of months to get my mojo back." By his own account, Miller did, and when it came time to go back into the studio and record something new with the Old 97's, a compelling idea had begun to form in the band. Why not go back to Dallas, where it all began, to the studio of Salim Nourallah, a producer who had known them from the early days, whose operation sat in the midst of their old stomping grounds, rich with memories of their earliest gigs in vanished, beloved bars like Naomi's and the Barley House, thick with ghosts of the audiences that had loved them first and maybe best? Bethea and Peeples still live in Dallas, and for them, the choice boiled down to logistics. It would be easier to take time on the guitar tracks and oversee the mixing process in their hometown. For Miller and Hammond, Dallas turned out to be the indispensable muse, or, as Miller puts it in "The Easy Way", one of the record's standout tracks: "Big D/a.k.a. the City of Hate/Deep in the big black heart of the Lone Star State/If you're a good old boy, they're going to do you fine/The Easy Way gets harder all the time." When Miller sings about the Easy Way, he's not just turning a phrase. As is often the case, his lyrics riff on two or three meanings at any given time, and on this song, he's delving into local, musical and personal history all at once. For years, Roscoe White's Easy Way sat on the corner of Lovers Lane and the North Dallas Toll Road, a Big D dive nicknamed by its habitues "the Greasy Way." I know this because I grew up nearby, a few dozen blocks from where Miller grew up in the north Dallas suburb of Highland Park. My family and I went to the Easy Way for ribs and burgers more times than I can count. Miller is seven years my junior, so it's unlikely but not impossible that we sat in that place at the same time. Miller recalled something I had forgotten, and it's key to understanding the back-to-basics ethos of the new record. The tables at the Easy Way each had their own jukeboxes. "They had Loretta Lynn on it, Tammy Wynette, even Waylon Jennings," Miller said, and those boxes of classic three-minute songs were some of his earliest encounters with the country music that became a key influence on the band. In Miller's house, growing up, there was already a little twang. His parents both loved music, but their tastes ran in different directions -- the perfect model for "how to build a songwriter," Miller says. His mother had a special fondness for Olivia Newton John's blow-dried hillbilly phase, and the 1975 hit "Please Mr. Please" made enough of an impression on him that he plans to record a version for an upcoming covers record. His mom favored anything that had melody and harmony, from Electric Light Orchestra to the Beach Boys and the Beatles. His father, by contrast, "was a super lyrics guy, where it was all Peter Seeger and Tom Lehrer," Miller explains, "and so we'd be quoting lyrics back to each other all the time. One of my big childhood memories was getting bounced off the tailgate of a suburban while trying to hold down a lawn mower that we were borrowing, and my dad and I were singing at the top of our lungs: 'There will be pie in the sky by and by, Oh Lord, there will be pie in the sky by and by.'" Like memories of the Easy Way, it's a pleasant recollection among some that aren't so rosy. Growing up in Dallas wasn't easy for a sensitive kid. "I'm not going to cry victim, but I was a bit fey," Miller said. "I wasn't big enough for the football team I was trying out for, and I was starting to get picked on by these kids. The name of choice was always 'faggot.'" That may come as a surprise to the rabid female fan base Miller has always attracted, and it sounded fairly ludicrous to the musician at the time. "I got beat up so much for being gay, and yet by the time I was 14, I was actually having sex with girls. I wanted to say to those guys who were beating me up, 'Dude!'" In the midst of his suburban Texas sturm und drang, Miller's musical education expanded. On his 15th birthday, he saw the Smiths in concert, a milestone. The opening act was the lesbian folkie Phranc, whose version of "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll" introduced Miller to Bob Dylan. Later that evening, the Smiths sang "Panic In The Streets Of London", and the crowd went wild. The teenager from upper-middle-class Highland Park had never seen anything like it. Around the same time, he caught David Bowie's Serious Moonlight tour and had another epiphany. "Bowie had this moment where he came off before the encore," Miller recalled. "The audience is chanting and applauding and getting the encore going, and someone hands him a towel, and someone else hands him a lit cigarette, and there's a glass of water, and he had this moment. I wasn't far away from him, and I could see his face. He closed his eyes and wiped his face off, and he took a drag off his cigarette, and it was just so human and so small, yet it was surrounded by such hoopla, all of which was centered on him. It wasn't so much that he seemed unfazed, but that he seemed so proud to be doing this job, and so capable." Something like a rock 'n' roll work ethic began to form. Around that time, 22-year-old Murry Hammond, a hard-drinking punk-rocker from Boyd, Texas, entered his life; he played on and produced Miller's first album, Mythologies, a limited release of 1,000 copies, every song on it performed in a British accent in homage to Miller's heroes. It was a musical dead end, but, as the saying goes, only the end of the beginning. These days, for the band, that old William Faulkner adage about the past -- "The past isn't dead. In fact, it's not even past." -- seems to be ringing true. A month before the release of Blame It On Gravity, Hammond issued his first solo disc, I Don't Know Where I'm Going But I'm On My Way, a haunting raft of gospel-tinged songs that draw on his family's history and religious faith going back generations. Listening to the record in contrast to Miller's The Believer, it's hard to imagine that Hammond, who opens his solo debut with "What Are They Doing In Heaven Today", has remained lifelong friends and musical partners with Miller, who penned that gorgeous ode to one-night stands, "Fireflies". To put the difference in the starkest possible terms, it's hard to hear much Jesus on Miller's last record, or much sex on Hammond's new one. Hammond sets me straight. "On my record, we'll just call it the God record, there's sex all over it. I've had pretty good luck with regret songs, and beating yourself up songs, and that's where the sex is. Sex is a character among the characters on that record. There are promises made and broken. And then on the Old 97's stuff, God's still kind of a major character, but he's in the background. There's a kind of undercurrent, when you're singing about fair and unfair. Whenever you're singing about dark and light, God is an undercurrent. You don't name it, but it's still a character. It's still in the script." These aren't idle questions to Hammond, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the singer-songwriter Grey DeLisle, and their 16-month-old son Tex. Hammond credits divine intervention with the happy shape of his life. He has been a believing, sometimes backsliding Christian ever since the early days of the Old 97's, and if his faith helped him to overcome multiple bouts with the bottle, it also served as a connection to the mindset and music of his parents' religious tradition. "Until the last two generations, my family were either farmers or worked for the railroad," he said. His mother's family came to small-town Texas from Tennessee and Mississippi after a family-owned ferry boat sank in the river off Corinth, Mississippi, in the early 1900s. "You see that movie The Last Picture Show, and you know where I grew up," he puts it. Church was part of the picture. As a girl, his mother had been a pianist for a local congregation, and when Hammond was a child, the family went to services every Sunday. Now, decades later, he plays music on Wednesday nights for his Disciples of Christ congregation in Burbank, steeping himself in the spectral somberness of the Gospel according to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and the Carter Family. The message is progressive and spiritual, a far cry from the conservative political agenda of evangelical Christianity, and the sound is darkly mortal. "I told the pastor, if I can play all that stony old hardcore music from the 1920s and 1930s, I'd love it," Hammond said. "I always jokingly call them the snake-handling songs, the real hardcore, bloody Church of Christ stuff. That's what the Carter Family sang, and what they recorded, and I just love that stuff." He spent hours playing the same music for himself in the church when it was empty, and those sounds, down to a convincingly desolate blues yodel, serve as the foundation of the splendid I Don't Know Where I'm Going But I'm On My Way. The title could just as well stand as an autobiography of the band that has formed the backbone of Hammond's musical career, inadvertently harking back to the early days with Miller, to the evening not long after they met when the two friends went to see the Ramones live. "I picked Rhett up at his mom's house," Hammond recalled. "And one thing that struck me was that his cheeks were so rosy. I thought, he looks like Raggedy Andy in a leather jacket. He was really pretty and everything, and I was thinking, man, I bet he gets his butt kicked a lot at school. And sure enough, that was part of our conversation that night. He knew I grew up in a redneck area of Texas, and he asked me if I got picked on a lot. And I said, 'Oh hell yeah. Are you kidding?'" At their best, the Old 97's spike right down through musical genre, through the pop and country and rock, and hit the paydirt of American myth. Their songs, from "Stoned" and "Victoria" through "Timebomb" and the most stunning cut on the new record, "Color Of A Lonely Heart Is Blue", are huge in songcraft and effect, the aural equivalent of the Dallas skyline against a massive red sky at dusk. In the right light, those buildings can look a little like colossal glass and steel guitars, and Bethea's work taps into the vista. Miller told me he has developed a personal code for deciding which of his songs belong to his solo career and which to the Old 97's. The decisive factor is "Ken's guitar." If a song sounds like it will fall under the spell of that big surf twang, it will stay with the band. After all this time, Bethea instinctively grasps the nature of his contribution. Though he added a cut of his own to the last record, the latter-day slacker track "Coahuila", which launches with a memorable line about chicken ravioli and grooves pretty well to the end, he has no attention of adding a future "Ringo" song, as he puts it, to every subsequent record. "I think the band got a little nervous about that," he said. Before I talked to Miller, I asked Bethea if he knew whether the song "The Easy Way" referred to the north Dallas dive, and the family man and soccer coach told me he doesn't tend to think much about what a song means, just about what it needs. When it came to "Victoria", a song written before he joined the band, he took a page from Pete Anderson's work with Dwight Yoakam and gave the tune its immortal sex drive. On "Barrier Reef", he wanted the sound of a bar band playing in exactly the kind of place where "Stewart Ransom Miller" could tell the gal at the bar that he's a "serial ladykiller" and so applied the first few chords of an AC/DC tribute at the top. On the new record, he's everywhere, dressing up the joint, urged on by Miller, who at one point sings, "play it like a train wreck song," unmistakably asking Bethea to do the usual favor. Live, on the stage, these relationships turn into pure energy, a Saturday night and Sunday morning concoction made up of Miller's self-mocking and sweet-tempered lechery, Hammond's hurting, God-smitten squareness, Bethea's epic sweep, and Philip Peeples' smashing discipline. When I saw the band last December in Austin, there was so much raw, racy joy in the mix that the show felt like a cross between a tent revival and an orgy. "It's the most fun thing I do," Bethea said of playing with the Old 97's. "I was a high school athlete, and being onstage with my band, if it reminds me of anything at all, it reminds me of playing high school football. You have that sense of immediacy. You're a part of that larger machine that you kind of just get on and hang on." The Old 97's have hung on intact; the four original band members are still making music together. That's a big part of their glory. They flourished within the alt-country movement that gave them a sense of community and even definition, and then transcended the movement when its bounds no longer made sense. The other piece of that glory is hard to name, but a trace of it might be found in the history of another band. This year, at South By Southwest, as both Miller and Bethea told me in rapturous terms, they got to see a reunion show by their heroes and mentors in X: John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake. Miller described the power of the show as a demonstration of "total commitment." Bethea talked about how he could watch any single member of the band at any moment with amazement. I saw X two years ago, on a January night in Massachusetts, and they played like what they are, one of the great American bands of all time, the closest we have come in this country to the musical and political urgency of the Clash. Before the Old 97's, X melded punk, hard-rock, rockabilly and honky-tonk. As the Knitters, they helped to lay the groundwork for the alt-country scene, but never quite fit under that umbrella. Their moments of maximum exposure came and went. They broke up, personally and professionally, they worked their side projects. Yet here they are in 2008, unkillable, raging, righteous. The Old 97's have some of that same magic. They have the commitment and musicianship. They sound like no one but themselves. They're no longer in it for the fame and money, though neither would hurt. Hammond claims he would gladly see an American Idol contestant sing one of their songs. Bethea says he wouldn't mind having a career like the guys in Los Lobos, who have been making music and a living together for 25 years. For his part, Miller remembers something a waitress in a restaurant where he had his last day job once told him. He made passes at her, but she always resisted, telling him that he wouldn't be any good till he was in his 30s. He's 37 now, and he thinks she might have been right. He calls himself a late-bloomer. Anyone who loves the band's music has to hope and pray -- I'll nod to Hammond's religious impulse here -- that it's true. Miller and his old friends have already given us a batch of unforgettable songs and one of the better live shows in the land. If they're just now starting to bloom, there's no telling where things might go. John Marks is a novelist, journalist and filmmaker. His most recent book is a memoir and work of reporting, Reasons To Believe: One Man's Journey Among The Evangelicals And The Faith He Left Behind. His first documentary, Purple State Of Mind, co-produced with Craig Detweiler, has recently been traveling the land like a rock 'n' roll band. His Dallas connections tell him that the Easy Way was torn down years ago to make way for a flower shop.