Rhett Miller had a habit of forming a new band every month. At least that's the way it seemed to followers of the Dallas music scene in the early '90s.
One month it would be a breezy folk combo. Before anyone realized it had disbanded, he would launch a British goth-pop group. The next time you ran into him, he would be playing raucous punk rock with a different lineup.
For Miller, currently the singer/songwriter and leader of the Old 97's, debut shows had a way of inadvertently turning into The Last Waltz. Seemingly, the low point came with Miller's punk project, whose half-life was so short that no one in town knew the group was together until it broke up. The band's name, Rhett's Exploding, seemed to say it all.
Miller, 26, had experienced a taste of fame with a solo album he recorded as a teenager--even getting his picture in Seventeen magazine--but as the ensuing years saw him haphazardly go through musical genres like most people go through dirty socks, he was widely dismissed in Big D as a pretty-boy has-been. The Donovan of Dallas.
So, at the urging of his longtime musical partner, bassist Murry Hammond, Miller went back to ground zero.
"It kept getting louder and louder, and we didn't really know what we wanted to do," Hammond says. "Rhett had all these great songs, and nobody, except 16- or 17-year-old girls, seemed to give a toot about 'em.
"We wanted to get away from loud, electric, fancy music and get down to some pretty basic, rootsy stuff, 'cause Rhett came from a whole folk-music fascination. As much as he spouts off about this or that alt-rock band, about liking the Wedding Present or Guided by Voices, he basically started out liking the Kingston Trio and thinking that's how to do a band. So I tried to convince him to bring it back to some rootsy level."
But in the spring of '93, when Miller announced that he'd formed a little country-tinged group called the Old 97's, no one held his breath in anticipation. To some uncharitable souls, it looked like the desperate move of a lost dilettante. Miller and Hammond knew there was only one possible solution for their image problem: Get out of Dallas.
"We wanted to do something fairly anonymous, where we didn't have to mess with anybody but people that just flat didn't know us," Hammond recalls. "That way they'd just listen to the music. So we played this little barbecue place in Austin called Logan's, that never had music. We brought our practice PA around and used it. There was really no other place we could play in Austin at that time."
In this rootsy setting, Miller's songwriting blossomed, and even his older songs suddenly seemed to find a pocket. After releasing two well-received indie CDs--Hitchhike to Rhome in 1994 and Wreck Your Life the next year--Elektra Records came calling. Now, with their first decent-size recording budget and Sebadoh producer Wally Gagel at the helm, the Old 97's have delivered Too Far to Care, one of the best pop albums of the year.
And a pop album is exactly what it is. However rootsy the band's base may be, Miller writes tuneful vignettes with choruses that kick in and just enough harmonic surprises to avoid lapsing into the mire of numbing country cliche. No longer eager to prove that he can rock out with the best of them, he flashes his rock credentials in a more subtle, natural way.
For instance, the haunting "Broadway" features guitar lines that would have fit on an old Plimsouls album, while the beautifully crafted "Streets of Where I'm From" sounds like something Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame could have written in 1983. "Just Like California" is a shuffling cross between Elvis Costello's "God's Comic" and something off the first Bangles album.
And on the hell-raising finale, "Four Leaf Clover," Miller actually does prove he can rock with the best of them. Aided by one of his idols, former X singer Exene Cervenka, Miller gets to be John Doe for three minutes, in a song that captures much of the desperate feel of X's classic "The Hungry Wolf."
Maybe because of the band members' pop smarts and Miller's amiably irreverent lyrics ("My name's Stewart Ransom Miller/I'm a serial lady killer"), the hyperserious alt-country movement still isn't quite sure what to make of them.
"That movement confuses me, to be honest with you," Hammond says. "We're supposed to be one of the major bands in that movement, but we don't listen to Gram Parsons, we don't listen to Neil Young, and we don't listen to any of the music that's supposed to be the foundation of that movement.
"I've found that whenever a movement comes along, it always breaks off into two camps: the rulemakers--the curmudgeons--and the people who just want to go out and entertain and have fun. And we kind of fall into the entertainment side. Curmudgeons want to downplay our significance because we don't play the miserable, curmudgeonly songs about drinking. And we have a sense of humor."
Besides, most alt-country fanatics seem unaware that the Appalachian bluegrass sensibility, complete with rustic instrumental breakdowns and rich harmonies, has infused the Old 97's sound much more than the Nashville country aesthetic.
"People ask us about country music, and it kind of perplexes me," Hammond says. "Really, there's a huge bluegrass influence to this, and a much more minor country influence. We're more influenced by a folky Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers approach than George Jones."
Both Miller and Hammond briefly played in the long-running Dallas bluegrass-punk band Killbilly, and they learned how to apply that runaway-locomotive sound to songs like the album opener "Timebomb." Hammond calls the song a "barnburner," bluegrass-speak for a rocker or a rave-up. Fittingly, this first song on the band's first major-label CD is actually a 6-year-old Miller tune that the band dug up and turned into an Old 97's gem.
"Rhett always wrote the same kind of songs," Hammond says. "He wrote songs that were just as deep or shallow as these, and finally, some band happened that allowed the songs to stand on their own."
The Old 97's played a few dates on the second stage of this summer's Lollapalooza Festival, but they won't be part of the Phoenix Lollapalooza show, which, coincidentally, happens the day after their show in Tempe. Hammond says, however, that some Lollapalooza crew members plan on gathering at the Old 97's show for a party. And the show will be a reunion of sorts for the band and the Grievous Angels' Jon Rauhouse, who plays pedal steel and banjo on Too Far to Care.
So, even as critical acclaim pours in for the new album, and major success seems around the corner, Hammond doesn't forget the lessons of the Old 97's humble beginnings. To hear him tell it, Bob Dylan may have been right when he sang, "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose."
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"We hit that point where we didn't care if we only played coffee houses and little tiny bars for the rest of our lives," Hammond says. "We just wanted to play for fun and play for ourselves. And somewhere in my gut, I knew that was the way to get to bigger things."
The Old 97's are scheduled to perform on Tuesday, August 5, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with
Grievous Angels. Showtime is 10 p.m.