Black Music Matters Festival

Old 97's

Hitchhike to Rhome: 20th Anniversary Reissue – 2014 (Omnivore)

Reviewed by Kate Everson

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Are the Old 97's country? Zydeco? Irish pub rock? Blues?

The bad news is that the 20th anniversary rerelease of the band's 1994 debut album "Hitchhike to Rhome" doesn't do anything to answer that question. The good news is that the rerelease is a fun listen nonetheless.

The reissue comes with bonus demo recordings and cassette versions of the original release, just in case fans of the group didn't feel old enough realizing that its debut is two decades old (the same age as cultural game-changers like the World Wide Web and Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction"). To sweeten the deal, the album also contains eight tracks not included in the original release, including "Alright by Me," a manic toe-tapper that has as much lyrical bite as the band's other hits.

But as much as "Hitchhike to Rhome" is a nostalgia-fest for the Old 97's original fan base, it's also an introductory course to their style (or combination of styles) for new, potentially younger listeners. Banjo-heavy tracks like "Doreen" point to the Dallas band's influence on Mumford and Sons, Of Mice and Men and similar artists in the recent wave of folk- and country-infused alternative music.

The group's edgy lyrics paired with traditional musical accompaniment is reminiscent of polarizing Irish rocker Frank Turner and Ben Folds, who debuted a year after the album's original release. Rhett Miller's vocals twang with the same rough passion for his amalgamated genre as Dropkick Murphys front man Ken Casey growls with love for Boston Irish punk - without any hint of apology.

As the Old 97's inspired musicians who would take both mainstream and alternative scenes by storm in the years that followed their debut, they continued to make music, collaborating with Waylon Jennings and releasing 10 studio albums, including 2014's "Most Messed Up." The rerelease of their first album is a sweet return to the beginning, when listeners weren't entirely sure of what they were listening to, but they knew they liked it. The same rings true 20 years later.