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Q&A: Old 97's

Since the band’s 1994 debut album "Hitchhike to Rhome," Old 97’s have mixed the explosiveness of punk rock and the raw sounds of alternative music with heavy doses of classic country swagger.

G.K. Hizer
April 28, 2019

When Old 97’s formed in 1993, they were arguably one of the pioneering bands of the alt-country movement of that time, along with the likes of Uncle Tupelo, The Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, and The Bottle Rockets.

Known for mixing country instrumentation and rock energy, Old 97’s built its reputation upon a raucous live show as well as strong songwriting. By the time the group finally signed with Elektra Records after a yearlong bidding war, they opted to hunker down at Village Productions in Tornillo, Texas, instead of following the trends of recording in Los Angeles or New York. The resulting album, Too Far to Care (1997), launched the band into a career that has seen its highs and lows, but also spanned three decades while building a dedicated following of fans.

It’s not often that a band finds itself surrounded by great critical praise and one of the highest charting albums of its career 20 years in, but that’s precisely where Old 97’s found themselves with the release of Most Messed Up in 2014. The album opens with tongue-in-cheek and reflection on the band’s career with the opening track “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive.” From there, the album rollicks along with a mix of honky-tonk rockers and drinking songs that made both old fans and critics ecstatic. But how do you follow up such a success?

For Old 97’s, it was simple: go back to where they started. That found the band again in Tornillo at what is dubbed Sonic Ranch. The group not only recorded in the same studio but even stayed in the same bedrooms they did 20 years earlier. When lead singer and songwriter Rhett Miller found a note written to him recommending an album he might like and a piece of paper he had written his girlfriend at the time’s phone number on, it was clear all had come full circle.

“It felt like a good omen,” Miller told Here & Now’s Eric Westervelt. “It felt like we were in the right place and doing the right thing.

“We knew it was the perfect move. We weren’t trying to remake Too Far to Care, but to make something where fans would say, ‘This band hasn’t lost a step in 20-some years.’”

It proved to be a great move, as the return to Tornillo was more than just a nostalgic one. Miller and the band have openly admitted in the past that Too Far to Care defined the band’s original sound and has been a touchstone that the group refers to mentally when moving forward.

“The time-travel element can’t be overstated,” says Miller. “It was a beautiful feeling of completing a circle: We’re the same people, but we had grown so much as bandmates and friends. It made me believe in the power of experience and that you do get better with time. We’re capable of so much more now than we were two decades prior, but it also felt like we just took a coffee break in 1996 and now here we are, sitting back down to make a record.”

Of course, the band has made a few friends along the way, and they were called in to make 2017’s Graveyard Whistling. Miller got to collaborate with Nicole Atkins while backstage at Chicago’s City Winery, coming up with a sketched chorus and wordless bridge for what would become “Those Were the Days.”

Butch Walker stepped in to co-write “Drinkin’ Song,” which revisits the territory that has been at the heart of the Old 97’s catalog, albeit with a twist. “I’ve made a career of singing songs that glorify drinking, so I wanted to battle with the idea of drinking as a lifestyle, the role it plays and the fetishizing of it — even if we did end up with something you could swing a beer mug to,” Miller says.

ATO Records labelmate Brandi Carlile also appears on the album’s lead single, “Good with God.” That came about as Miller realized that the character of God in his lyrics was a woman, so he approached Carlile with the idea of her finishing the song by singing the response part of the song.

While Graveyard Whistling grapples with themes of spirituality and mortality, it does so with a lighter approach.

“The trick Old 97’s has held on to is to take a song that may have a darker theme and present it as something to be screamed along to in a club,” Miller says. “I don’t want to sing sad songs sadly. You don’t even realize the tombstone is sticking out in the middle of it until the eighth or 10th listen.”

Graveyard Whistling gives a knowing nod to the past, opening with “I Don’t Wanna Die in this Town” (taken from a quote by Frank Sinatra) and closing with “Those Were the Days,” yet barrels headlong into life throughout the rest. That makes it quite fitting for a band that’s doing the same thing, still rolling along like a force to be reckoned with more than 25 years after forming with all of its original member still intact.

But what’s the secret to staying together so long?

“I think our longevity can be attributed primarily to our friendship and ability to overcome those moments when egos want to overtake and obliterate everything in their path,” Miller says. “We’re just fortunate to be able to do this for a living. It’s insane and beautiful, and we never, ever take it for granted.”

Old 97's
Skyline Event Center | Osage Casino Hotel
951 W. 36th St. N. | Tulsa
June 1: 7 p.m.
Must be 18 or older to attend