Something Old, Something New

Making records (and babies) with the Old 97's

Rhett Miller is far from a carbon copy of Hank Hill, but the lead singer and guitarist of the Old 97's shares more than a handful of characteristics with Fox Television's symbol of Americana--including a love for Texas, old-school country, and Willie Nelson.

"It seems like it would be a waste not to move back and have at least one kid in Texas," says Miller, who has been living in California. "What if I blow it and give up my lineage? There aren't many seventh-generation Texans left, and even fewer eighth-generation Texans. I've been trying to drop this reasoning into conversations about the future with my girlfriend, and I think she's getting a little worried about me."

From hill country to cold country: The Old 97's (Murry Hammond, Rhett Miller, Philip Peeples, and Ken Bethea) swing through St. Paul
From hill country to cold country: The Old 97's (Murry Hammond, Rhett Miller, Philip Peeples, and Ken Bethea) swing through St. Paul

Talk of raising future Texans may seem out of place coming from a member of a band that has been touring and recording almost nonstop since signing with Elektra three years ago. But it's actually a subject close to Miller's heart: Already, two Old 97's members have toddlers back home, and there are jokes about buying another bus so the families can go out on tour.

Miller's own family still lives in the Dallas area, and, to hear him tell it, they were a heavy influence on his early love of music, if not in any Texas sort of way. Before becoming an accountant, his uncle had been a keyboardist in a British Invasion-type band called the Outcasts during the Sixties. Miller's mother sang in church and around the house. His dad was a big Tom Lehrer fan; father and son would memorize the satirist's songs and try to sing them faster than Lehrer did.

As a teenager, Miller began playing guitar and writing his own songs. When he was 17, he recorded a solo album that was produced by fellow Texan and future Old 97's bandmate Murry Hammond. It was Hammond's determination to start a band that convinced Miller to drop out of Sarah Lawrence College the following year and move back to Texas. "My mom was so upset when I dropped out, because we didn't have any money and I got a full scholarship to Sarah Lawrence even after messing around in high school and getting lousy grades," he recounts. "I told my mom that if I didn't get a record deal by the time I was 25, I'd go back to college. Luckily, we signed with Bloodshot Records a few months before my 25th birthday."

It wasn't long after the 1995 release of their Bloodshot debut, Wreck Your Life, that the Old 97's gained major-label attention at South by Southwest in Austin. "It was the perfect setting to have a record company scout come and see us," Miller remembers. "We had a pretty good fan base in Texas already--there was literally a line around the block. The show was completely oversold, with about 500 kids in the audience singing along with all our songs. There were about a dozen labels there that day, and we ended up being courted by almost all of them."

The band went with Elektra, and took to the studio soon after to work on 1997's Too Far to Care, which introduced the mainstream to their unique blend of traditional country Americana and catchy pop. Then came 1999's Fight Songs and the group's latest, Satellite Rides. (A pre-Bloodshot LP, 1994's Wreck Your Life, and last year's compilation Early Tracks round out the band's catalogue.) As the century begins, the cast of Miller, Ken Bethea on guitar, Murry Hammond on bass, and Philip Peeples on drums is still creating some of the most infectious country-infused pop to be found, with enough references to love and the devil to make Hank Williams and all his progeny proud. Recorded in Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studios in Austin, the new album is loaded with brilliant, old-timey guitar licks, soaring vocal harmonies, and keen songwriting.

Thing is, it won't be released until after the final leg of the current Midwest tour. "It's going to be kind of a strange show," Miller says of the upcoming date at the Turf Club. "No one's going to know the songs we're playing except the press people with advance copies. It's lucky that we're really at our best when we're playing live, though, and we tend to win people over at our shows even if they don't know any of the songs we're playing."

 
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