Old 97's - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Are the Old 97's a rock band with a country twang, or a country band that likes to rock out? It seems none of the tags attached to the Old 97's bothers them. Their sound takes influence from some of the old country artists such as Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, but also takes influence from such classic pop and rock acts like the Kinks and the Beatles. It would be safe to say they fall squarely into the Americana or alt-country genres, and have become one of the most respected bands in whatever genre you would want to place them in.
The Old 97's formed in Dallas, Texas in 1993. Main songwriters guitarist and vocalist Rhett Miller and bassist Murry Hammond had met in the mid 1980's and had played together in several local bands. Miller had also played around the Dallas area as a folksinger, and later earned a creative writing scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College, but returned to Texas to concentrate on his music. Miller released a solo acoustic album, Mythologies (Carpe Diem) in 1989. Miller hooked up with Hammond again and the two formed the band Sleepy Heroes, which played covers of '60's era British rock, and released one album together. After the band broke up, Hammond traveled away from Texas and took a trip through the South and rediscovered his love for roots music, specifically, older, traditional country and bluegrass. When he returned to Texas, he found Miller again and formed a roots-influenced acoustic duo called the Ranchero Brothers. (The two eventually recorded an album together as the Ranchero Brothers in 2000.) The two met up with lead guitarist Ken Bethea, and his twangy style added to the country influence the pair were going after. For a short time the three played as an acoustic trio, but soon found drummer Philip Peoples and decided to go electric. To show their connection with traditional country, the band named themselves after Henry Whitters's 1923 recording of the ballad about a 1903 Virginia railroad disaster, “The Wreck of the Old 97”.
Once the band had it's membership in place, they set about playing around the Dallas area and released their debut album Hitchhike to Rhome (Big Iron) in 1994. Hitchhike to Rhome encapsulated exactly what the new band was all about, as it presented the band's high-energy country-rock originals up against covers of songs by Webb Pierce and Merle Haggard. The band didn't find much of an audience in their part of Texas, but when they toured around the country in support of the album, they found an especially receptive audience in Chicago, home to a thriving insurgent country scene. One of the pillars of the Chicago scene was the Bloodshot record label, and after seeing and hearing the Old 97's, the label signed them in 1995. The group recorded their song “Por Favor” for Bloodshot's Insurgent Country, Vol. II compilation in 1995, and then recorded their next album Wreck Your Life, released by the label in 1996. (Bloodshot also released a compilation of the band's early material for the label, appropriately titled Early Tracks, in 2000). Wreck Your Life further solidified the band's position as one of the more talented and energetic bands on the emerging alt-country scene, and the band took to the road to support the release, including gigs at such high-profile events as the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas and the Gavin Convention held in Atlanta. Though their signing to Bloodshot garnered the band much more attention than they had received before, they had quickly become popular enough where they felt like they had outgrown the small indie label, and solicited major label record companies to sign them. The band signed to Elektra Records in 1996, and released their debut for the label, Too Far To Care, in 1997. Too Far To Care garnered rave reviews from music critics, but some of the band's old fans saw the album as tipping too far towards straight-ahead rock and a more commercial sound. The Old 97's, however, did things their way, and didn't care if they didn't fit in to any narrow classifications. The group toured extensively in support of the album, even hooking up with the 1997 Lollapalooza Tour. The band furthered their move towards out-and-out rock and pop with their next album, 1999's Fight Songs (Elektra). Where their previous albums had relied more on country and rock-fueled energy and bombast, Fight Songs was more concerned with carefully constructed pop songs. The band scored a minor hit with the single “Murder (Or A Heart Attack)”, but still didn't seem to be quite accepted by either the rock or country audiences, both camps thinking the band swung too far to either side. The group's next album, Satellite Rides (Elektra)(2001), was a chance for the band to show off their power-pop chops, writing songs that wouldn't be out of place on albums by Nick Lowe or Marshall Crenshaw. The songs were short and crisp, with just a tiny bit of twang here and there, and really showed main songwriter Miller's command of the format of the three-minute pop song.
Though the band had toured extensively and had many critical plaudits, when Elektra had signed them, the label was expecting alt-country to be the next big trend in music in the manner that grunge was in the early 1990's. When that didn't happen and the major record companies started down-sizing in the early 2000's, the Old 97's found themselves without a label in 2002. By this time Miller had moved to Los Angeles, and the other members of the band were settling down in different cities and starting families. Taking a break from the band, Miller collaborated with producer/multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion and released the power-pop heavy solo album The Instigator (Elektra) in 2002, and followed the release up with solo touring that included a tour with Crowded House leader Neil Finn. The album garnered rave reviews, and it seemed like maybe Miller didn't really need his band to be successful, but Miller decided to continue his solo career while also being the frontman for the Old 97's. The group didn't get back together again until 2004, when, armed with a new record deal from indie label New West, they recorded and released Drag It Up. Drag It Up marked a return to a rougher-edged and more country-influenced sound, and the group took it on the road and recorded some of it for inclusion on their 2005 live double-disc album Alive & Wired (New West). The recording captured the band loud and loose during a couple of gigs in their native Texas. The band's old label, Elektra, released a retrospective of their time on the label titled Hit By A Train: The Best Of Old 97's in 2006. After Miller released another solo album, Believer, on a new label, Verve, in early 2006 and toured in support of it, he and the other members of the Old 97's returned to their native Dallas and recorded the album Blame It On Gravity (New West), released in 2008. The album seemed to be a perfect summation of the band's history thus far, with rollicking cow-punk numbers mixed with pristine pop, mature ballads, and mid-tempo slow-burners. The Old 97's have been around long enough and have weathered enough changes in the musical climate and their own band to become one of alternative country's most respected and loved groups.