The Old 97’s long ago achieved the kind of national fandom that could be just another feather in the hat that is Texas’ storied music history. But over much of the band’s three decades in existence, they were more likely to be described as just a “Dallas band,” separated from the state that made them.
And so it raises the question: can a Dallas band really be a “Texas band”?
Fort Worth’s little-brother complex would probably compel them to say no. Houston would agree; chalk that up to the narcissism of small differences. Austin would feign surprise at the notion that there is music in Dallas.
The Old 97’s three-night stand at The Studio at the Factory marked the band’s 30th anniversary. It was a celebration of a band that has spent over a dozen albums eating up every contradiction Dallas has to offer and spitting them back out of the PA in the form of catchy hooks, satisfying guitar riffs, and opening lines you could drop into an Elmore Leonard novel.
Roughly two-thirds of Friday’s packed show was made up of people who looked old enough to have attended 10th and 20th anniversary shows. Perhaps once disaffected and feeling strangled by the realities and fictions of Dallas’ many stereotypes, these were the sons and daughters of the Dallasites who were “all hat, no cattle.” Rhett Miller has been writing songs for them for three decades.
Chicago has Wilco. New York has The Strokes. Dallas has the Old 97’s.
The long weekend was originally sold as four nights with the first at the smaller, historic Sons of Hermann Hall. The last two were scheduled at The Studio, which has spent past lives as Deep Ellum Live and Canton Hall. The Thursday show was canceled due to the winter storm, forcing the band to move the Friday show to The Studio’s larger capacity to accommodate ticketholders for both nights. Local mid-aughts favorites Deathray Davies filled the opening slot.
“This is where it all started, on these few blocks,” Miller said to the crowd a few songs into the setlist.
Indeed, if the Old 97’s are the poster boys for “alt-country,” then you can argue the genre grew up in Deep Ellum. The band cut its teeth here after the neighborhood’s DIY scene of the mid-1980s developed the infrastructure to launch Edie Brickell, Toadies, and Tripping Daisy into national stardom. But it was Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond, and drummer Philip Peeples who seemed to have the largest catalog of songs, sneaking in loose Dallas references here and there, playing Deep Ellum every weekend as if it were the cultural capital of the world.
The fourth song of Friday’s set marked the moment the concert began to feel like a true homecoming. (Bethea and Peeples still live in Dallas, but Miller and Hammond moved out of state.) As Miller sang, “The streets of where I’m from are paved with hearts instead of gold,” the crowd knew those streets as Commerce, Elm, and Main. In a city with pockets where the streets might as well have been paved in gold, Deep Ellum allowed four nice boys with creative streaks to pretend to be degenerate rockstars and write soundtracks for every person who lived in a city with an identity built around Neiman Marcus, JFK, J.R. Ewing, and Jerry Jones.
Naomi’s—the now-closed country bar just down Commerce that wasn’t much larger than where band merch was arranged at The Studio show—was the most common place you could find an Old 97’s gig back in 1993. Hammond took a nostalgic stroll past where the bar used to be early Friday evening and told the crowd about their days covering Merle Haggard at Naomi’s. Then the band channeled those memories with a rendition of “Mama Tried.”
In total, the Old 97’s played 30 songs Friday, sprawling across their discography and refusing to favor one era over another. The show lasted two hours and 26 minutes. Then they would do it again for two more nights, each with a fresh setlist. Over the three nights and 80 songs, only five songs were played at more than one set, a staggering statistic that shows a Tom Petty-esque depth of a beloved song catalog.
The most touching moment of Friday’s concert came when Bethea very briefly left the stage and returned, having traded his jacket for a white X-men t-shirt. He is a pure lead guitarist, one who has long opted to let his instrument represent him instead of contributing to vocal harmonies. His voice had the rushed tone of someone still nervous in front of a microphone despite having spent 30 years playing in a famous band. He recounted the story of the Wednesday night in 1993 when Peeples told him the plan that started the 97’s: the two would perform a combination of songs with Miller and Hammond.
The kicker of the story was the t-shirt; it was the same one Bethea wore to that first real show. The crowd let out a collective “aww” that Bethea didn’t let them finish before hitting the opening riffs to “Barrier Reef.”
Every album over these 30 years contained an undeniable angst and conflict in Miller’s songwriting. But the band never had an aversion to catchy hooks the way many in their genre did. The songs are too upbeat to slip into the nihilism that some of the lines might foretell. The message has always been clear: Isn’t it a drag what a scam this life is? Anyway, let’s have some fun.
It would have fit anywhere. But it happened in Dallas. It happened in Texas.
At one point, Miller and Bethea told a story of when the young band recorded with Waylon Jennings, who had seen the Old 97’s play at an Atlanta radio convention and couldn’t stop singing their praises. The legendary artist agreed to meet up with them in the studio after Miller wrote him a letter.
It’s the type of story that makes the outlaw country icon’s musical taste sound a bit more eclectic than one might have guessed. Then, about an hour later, the Old 97’s launched into the 26th song of the night, “If My Heart Was A Car.” It was off their first album and featured the whip-fast opening line: “I remember the Alamo, I don’t recall who won.” That line triggers the realization that the Old 97’s are every bit as Texas an act as Jennings or Freddy Fender or Destiny’s Child or Erykah Badu or Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. It was right there in that 16-song debut, three decades ago. Jennings could have told you so.
Many Texans call them their favorite band. To some in Dallas, they are the only band that’s ever mattered. That’s enough to place them right alongside the best Texans to ever do it, and they only needed three nights after 30 years to prove it.