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Members include Ken Bethea, lead guitar; Murry Hammond, bass, vocals; Rhett Miller, rhythm guitar, vocals; Philip Peeples, drums. Addresses: Record company--Bloodshot Records, 3039 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago, IL 60618, phone: (773) 604-5300, website: http://www.bloodshotrecords.com; Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019, phone: (212) 275-4000. Website--Old 97's Official Website: http://www.old97s.com.
The Old 97's began their musical career as the darlings of the early alternative-country scene. The band's lineup--guitarist/singer Rhett Miller, bassist/singer Murry Hammond, lead guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Philip Peeples--has remained constant since its founding. Like many other alternative country bands, the Old 97's did not want critics and fans to box them into one musical style. Their participation in the 1997 Lollapalooza Tour proved that as they jammed with some of the best groups on the alternative rock scene. The Old 97's included a number of pop songs on 1999's Fight Songsas well. From their beginning, the Old 97's have followed their muse regardless of the consequences.
The Old 97's formed in Dallas, Texas, in 1993. Miller and Hammond had met in the mid 1980s and played together in several bands. The duo later left Texas to work on other projects. Hammond eventually persuaded Miller to move back to Texas to form Sleepy Heroes, a band that covered 1960s British rock. The band stayed together long enough to release one album. Hammond left Texas again, this time opening himself up to music that would have a profound effect on the Old 97's' sound. "It was probably really on that trip more than anything else that I rediscovered roots music--rediscovered the country background, rediscovered bluegrass," Hammond told Peter Blackstock of No Depression. He eventually returned and reunited with Miller. In early 1993, Bethea entered the scene, and it was his lead guitar work that gave the fledgling band the country twang it needed. They played for a short time as an acoustic trio but filled out their sound and went electric in late 1993 with the addition of drummer Peeples. Hammond, a train buff, suggested the name Old 97's, which was drawn from Henry Whitter's 1923 ballad about the 1903 Virginia railroad disaster: "The Wreck of the Old 97."
In 1994 the Old 97's played locally and self-released their debut album, Hitchhike to Rhome. Their new sound failed to find a footing in Texas soil, however, so the band traveled north to Chicago. There, they were astounded by the lively reception they received during their first gig, not realizing that they were practically in the backyard of similar-sounding bands like the Bottle Rockets and Jason and the Scorchers. "It was such a shock for us to go to Chicago," Peebles told Shayla Thiel of the Washington Post, "because there was a group of listeners who actually liked us. We had never even heard of Uncle Tupelo before then." Bloodshot Records signed the band in 1995 and they recorded the song "Por Favor" for the Insurgent Country, Vol. IIcompilation. In 1996 they recorded Wreck Your Life, an album that solidified their status as "the" alternative country band to watch. The five-song EP, Early Tracks, would be released by Bloodshot in 2000, reminding everyone of the band's energetic, cow-punk roots.
In 1996 the band began a busy touring schedule that included performances at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin and the Gavin Convention in Atlanta. The band also began to consider changing its record label and musical direction. "We were in Wilmington, N.C., at some horrible gig," Miller told Jon Johnson of Country Standard Time, "and we came out afterward and said, 'Okay, tomorrow we're going to get a lawyer and ask the lawyer to call major labels and see if any of them would be interested in having us.' Because this sucked!" They signed to Elektra in September of 1996 and released Too Far to Care in 1997. This album, and the group's subsequent performances with the 1997 Lollapalooza Tour, would lead to accusations within the alternative-country community that the group had sold out. Critics said that the "twang" had been toned down on Too Far to Care and Lollapalooza's alternative-rock orientation did not fit the group's style. The band, however, continued to move forward. "Sure, we made a rock record," Miller told Andy Langer of the Austin Chronicle, "but we didn't necessarily set out saying we're not going to do any country either. We just wanted to make a record that didn't pander."
In 1999 the Old 97's would once again buck the trend by releasing Fight Songs, an album filled with pop tunes. Two of the songs, "Nineteen" and "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)," received radio play, and the band began to sell out 1,500-seat auditoriums on tour. While the stylistic shifts--from alternative country to rock to pop--probably puzzled some fans, it seemed a natural shift to the band. "I'm really glad that we kept what we kept," Miller told Blackstock, defending Fight Songs, "and didn't get scared to put on whatever." While 2001's Satellite Rides would rock harder, the shift in themes continued. Two of the band members were now fathers, and wives and girlfriends--barred from early recording sessions--were invited to the studio. The irony that drenched earlier songs no longer seemed appropriate to group members who had fallen in love, had children, and grown a little older.
The growth and changes in the music of the Old 97's are also representative of the trends within the alternative-country community. Bands like Wilco have also traveled the same road, starting with Gram Parsons influences and steel guitars, and then moving to the Beatles and hook-laden pop songs. Songwriters like Miller and Hammond place more importance on crafting good songs than trying to fit into a preconceived genre. The band is also quick to point out that despite a change in record labels and a change in the band's sound, it has yet to become famous. In other words, they haven't sold out. Still, the band has high hopes for the future. Miller, who has residences in New York and Los Angeles, returned to Texas for three months and lived with the band while making Satellite Rides. "It just made us a lot closer as a band," he told Wes Orshoski of Billboard. "So, it's different from the last record in that respect--we're a lot more of a band. I think that comes across." This harmony and openness to change guarantees that the Old 97's will continue to make music that will perk up listeners' ears--no matter what musical category it happens to be in.
by Ronald D. Lankford Jr
Old 97's's Career
Group formed in Dallas, TX, 1993; released debut Hitchhike to Rhome independently, 1994; signed to Bloodshot Records, 1995; recorded Wreck Your Life, 1996; extensive touring, 1995-96; appeared at the Gavin Convention in Atlanta and South By Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, TX, 1996; signed to Elektra Records, 1996; recorded first album for that label, Too Far to Care, 1997; played several dates with the Lollapalooza Tour, 1997; recorded Fight Songs, 1999; Early Tracksreleased by Bloodshot, 2000; Satellite Rides issued by Elektra, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Hitchhike to Rhome self-released, 1994; reissued, Elektra, 1999.
- Wreck Your Life Bloodshot, 1996.
- Too Far to Care Elektra, 1997.
- Fight Songs Elektra, 1999.
- Satellite Rides Elektra, 2001.
July 27, 2004: The band's album, Drag It Up, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/index.jsp, August 5, 2004.
- Billboard, March 24, 2001, p.18.
- "Alternative Country, Indy Scene Grows," Country Standard Time, http://www.countrystandardtime.com (April 2, 2001).
- "Old 97's: Too Far To Care?" Washington Post,http://www.washingtonpost.com (April 4, 2001).
- "Old 97's' Rhett Miller Ponders Radio, Plant Closures, and the Bi-coastal Life," LiveDaily, http://livedaily.citysearch.com/news/2928.html (April 12, 2001).
- "The Old 97's Ride New Track," Country Standard Time,http:// www.countrystandardtime.com (April 2, 2001).
- "Wreck Your Image," Austin Chronicle,http://www.weeklywire.com (April 4, 2001).
- "You Can't Please Everyone, So You've Got To Please Yourself," No Depression, http://www.nodepression.net (April 2, 2001).
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