On the Edge: Old 97’s

(From left) Old 97’s’ Philip Peeples, Rhett Miller, Ken Bethea and Murry Hammond
photo by Eric Ryan Anderson/Shore Fire Media

For all of its positive points, Nashville isn’t always kind to everyone—particularly musicians working outside the frequently rigid confines of Music Row. Texas-based band the Old 97’s knows from experience, having been perfecting its raw, twangy country-rock sound since 1993 and butting up against the Nashville establishment.

“It was tough for us at first,” says Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller, coincidentally speaking to CW on a day when he’s playing a solo Nashville gig. “In the mid-to-late ’90s when we started coming through town a lot, the promoters would always tell us, ‘Well, you’re too country for the rock fans and you’re too rock for the country fans. We’re having a hard time selling this show.’” 

The song “Nashville” from the Old 97’s’ new album, Most Messed Up, is a pretty caustic look at what it’s like to break through in Music City and the toll the music industry takes on artists in general.

The chorus asks the age-old question about what kind of sexual favors one must perform to be granted access to a show. “I wrote [that] with a songwriter named John McElroy in his home outside Nashville,” explains Rhett. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I walked in he said, ‘I’ve been looking at y’all on YouTube and I think your audience would appreciate it if you walked up to the mic and said, “f--k.”’ I thought, ‘OK!’ That was actually the song that started the ball rolling on all these songs just being really honest and raw and gritty.

“For me, it kind of spoke to our experience with this town, Nashville,” he continues. “It also spoke to, in a way, our ongoing experience with the music industry in general. We’ve been lucky and/or unlucky in the sense that we’ve never had a breakthrough hit. But I think it’s probably served us well because we’ve never peaked and had to live down that hit or something.”

While it’s true there isn’t one particular smash single in the Old 97’s’ catalog, that also means Rhett and his buddies Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea and Philip Peeples haven’t been relegated to one-hit-wonder status. As a cornerstone act in the ’90s alt-country movement, the group built its following the old-fashioned way: one tour stop at a time, releasing several albums through indie labels Bloodshot Records and New West as well as major Elektra. Rhett also released a series of more pop-indebted solo records, like 2002’s acclaimed The Instigator.

Rhett’s songs are full of recurring characters and locales across the group’s entire body of work. Rather than generalities about love or life, these tunes—frequently ultra-specific accounts of one event, one night or one person—make for engrossing stories and ring true. “I see them as pieces of a larger whole,” he says. “I really love the idea of a catalog that somebody can look at the start to finish of it and see these different characters and themes. There’s a boat called the Halcyon that recurs in a few songs. That’s a lot of fun for me. Some of my favorite authors and novelists do that, where they’ll have characters that pop up from book to book that are familiar to the reader.”

Being in a band that tours all the time can wear you out, as most artists will attest, and the strains of constant travel can be heard on scorchers like “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” which boasts/warns of what too many nights of excess can do to you. Even with the aches and pains that come with getting older, the song ultimately says that, yeah, they’re totally lifers for being on the road—in a winking, self-aware way—but it’s been well worth the trouble.

“There’s [a song] on the second 97’s record I think about a lot,” says Rhett. “At the time, I was just goofing. There’s a song called ‘Dressing Room Walls’ where the chorus says, I’m gonna die someday staring at the dressing room walls.” 

A musician’s life is so often lots of downtime, waiting for the moment when the lights go out and it’s time to hit the stage. That’s where the Old 97’s are in their element, playing rowdy live gigs that bring an element of rock ’n’ roll chaos to each stop. When Rhett plays solo—like his Nashville visit—it’s more free-form, but he’s still playing with the same intensity as he does with the band. “It’s kind of my whim,” he says. “I get to do whatever I want. That’s the nice thing about the fact that it’s a solo gig. I don’t have to answer to the band or anything.

“I do get to do more storytelling and get to have quieter more intimate moments,” he continues. “But I sort of have one speed. I’m either on and full steam ahead rock ’n’ roll or I’m not onstage. If I am onstage, I’m gonna be jumping around and screaming. If somebody’s gonna make that kind of commitment to spend their evening with me, I gotta care about them having a good time.”

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