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The Old 97's ride new track

By Jon Johnson, July 1997

Rhett Miller is in a good mood - with good reason.

The Old 97's, the singer, rhythm guitarist and songwriter's band for the past four years, have just released its third album and first for a major label. They are the critical darlings of the alt. country movement and are looking forward to a busy summer, including a string of dates on one of summer's biggest annual tours.

Miller is a lot of things, though unenthusiastic is not one of them. He has been called "engimatic," but nothing could be further from the truth.

During an hour-long conversation, Miller is more than happy to discuss subjects such as his band's recent association with Waylon Jennings, his folk music origins and the Mike Myers's recent movie, "Austin Powers," a big favorite of Miller's.

"Too Far to Care," released on Elektra Records in June, marks a significant change in certain aspects of the Dallas group's musical approach; mostly gone is the strong country flavor of the band's first two albums and the results are sometimes more reminiscent of The Clash than Cash.

"I realized way after the fact - I guess when we were mastering it and I was hearing it for the first time - that people might think that this was an intentional thing," says the 26-year-old Miller. "The only thing that we did intentionally was to pick a producer who wasn't a country guy," referring to Wally Gagel, best known for his work with alternative rock artists like Sebadoh, Folk Implosion and ex-Belly leader Tanya Donnelly.

"The one thing that I felt kind of bad about was that 'Niteclub' ended up being such a huge rocker, because it's a straight-up country song, and it's a really sad song when it's just played acoustically. On the record, it sounds like a Replacements song or something."

"But there wasn't any pressure from the label to not be country. I was worried about that, in fact. A few times we=/ said, 'Do you care what we do? Are you going to make us re-do this if it sounds country?' And they said, "Hell, no! We don't know what you guys are, but we like it.'"

Miller - a well-known folk singer in the Dallas music scene in the mid-'80's - and bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond have known each other since 1985. They played together for nearly as long, including a stint in the Sleepy Heroes, which Miller describes as having been "a full-on '60's British Invasion-type band."

Hammond is also the group's resident train buff and suggested the group's name. It's a reference to Henry Whitter's 1923 famous ballad about a 1903 Virginia railroad disaster, "The Wreck of the Old 97," a big hit originally for Vernon Dalhart and, much later, Johnny Cash.

Lead guitarist Ken Bethea entered the picture in early 1993 and drummer Philip Peeples joined later that same year.

The band came to Elektra in 1996 after releasing two earlier albums - 1994's "hitchhike to rhome" (now out of print but soon to be reissued by the band on its own Two Tons label) and 1995's "Wreck Your Life" on Chicago's Bloodshot label.

Miller cites lack of tour support and other realities of being on a small label as the primary reason for making the change.

"We were in Wilmington, N.C. at some horrible gig, and we came out afterwards and said, 'Okay, tomorrow we're going to get a lawyer and ask the lawyer to call major labels and see if any of them would be interested in having us.' Because this sucked! There were no records in the whole town and no promotion."

"This isn't a slag on Bloodshot. They're an indy label and consequently have (financial) constraints. But we finally decided that, for us not to quit or go crazy, we had to start making not a ton of money, but some money."

Four West Coast tours in late 1995 and the first half of 1996, as well as blistering performances at 1996's Gavin Convention in Atlanta and Austin's annual SXSW event, created an inevitable buzz about the group in industry circles, resulting in the Old 97's being signed to Elektra in September.

The group's Elektra contract has an unusual provision allowing the group to continue to record two singles a year for independent labels.

Jennings "was on the panel at the Gavin Convention that we played at. The panel was called 'Demystifying the "C" Word,' which was essentially trying to convince a bunch of college radio stations and programmers that any kind of a country band wasn't necessarily unplayable."

"We were playing at noon - and that's no time to be singing - but we got up and did a 20- minute set, and he sat right in the front row center. About halfway through I looked down, realized it was him and just about swallowed my tongue."

"He came up afterwards, and he used to play bass with Buddy Holly, and he loved Murry. I thought that this was an amazing thing, and we got a photo op with Waylon Jennings, and I thought that would be it. A couple of months later he was in Austin doing an interview for the Chronicle, and he said, 'Well, as far as I'm concerned, the best hope for the future of rock 'n' roll is this band I saw in Atlanta called the Old 97's and went on for about two paragraphs about us."

"So we called up his manager and eventually talked to Waylon and thanked him. And he said, 'Actually, do you all want to do some recordings together?'"

"The vinyl single will come out on Bongload or Diesel Only or some other indie label. The 3-song CD EP will be on Elektra," says Miller.

The first release will probably be two songs the group recorded a few months ago in Nashville with Waylon Jennings on lead vocals; a re-recording of "The Other Shoe" (originally on "Wreck Your Life") and a new Hammond original entitled "Iron Road."

The third song - as yet unrecorded - will likely be a live version of the band performing a Jennings number, perhaps again with Jennings himself on lead vocals. The song will be probably either "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" or "Bob Wills Is Still the King."

There have also been discussions about the Old 97's acting as the backing band on Jennings's next album.

"That's come up. I'll believe it when we actually pull into Nashville to do it," Miller says. But he said that he liked so much working with the producer (John Croslin) and with us and the way it ended up sounding that he'd like to use us on his next album."

Miller also got a chance to work with another of his musical heroes during the sessions for "Too Far to Care" - Exene Cervenka, former vocalist for Los Angeles' legendary X - who duets with Miller on "Four Leaf Clover," a re-recording of a song originally appearing on "hitchhike to rhome."

"It's kind of funny, because I'd written a real George-and-Tammy-esque duet called 'Fireflies,' but she didn't really think she could pull it off. She felt like she'd rather do a rocker."

Finally, Miller is looking forward to playing eight shows this summer on the Lollapalooza tour; an annual touring "alternative rock" festival - as "alternative" as a festival can be when many of the participants regularly sell two or three million albums. As much as he's looking forward to the exposure, however, he's looking forward to the chance to meet one of his favorite bands.

"We'll get to meet Devo! I'm very excited about that!"