If you want a concise history of the Old 97’s quarter-century run, which they celebrate this month, listen to the song that kicks off the band’s 2014 album, Most Messed Up. As the music reaches back to rowdy sets at the long-dead Deep Ellum dive Naomi’s, it tells the tale of a group that’s “been doin’ it longer than you’ve been alive/20 good years of about 25.” It’s all there in just a shade under six minutes—the truth about being in a band for more than two decades, about being in this particular band.
“Most of this stuff should be kept confidential,” Rhett Miller sings, probably referring to the “oceans and oceans” of alcohol, “mountains of weed, a handful of pills.” “Aw, but who even gives half a fuck anymore? You should know the truth, it’s both a blast and a bore.”
I can’t tell the story better than Miller and his bandmates—guitarist Ken Bethea, drummer Philip Peeples, and bassist and sometime singer Murry Hammond—do on “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive.” But if you’ll indulge me, I have an outsider’s perspective on their time together.
I got there a little late. Naomi’s was already closed, but the gigs were still wild. The first Old 97’s show I remember seeing, sometime in June 1997, ended with Miller flat on his back onstage at Sons of Hermann Hall. He was suffering from either heat exhaustion or a mildly sprained neck from ecstatically banging his head along with Peeples’ train’s-a-comin’ backbeat—or likely both. The show was a release party for the band’s third and arguably best album, Too Far to Care, its debut for Elektra Records, back when a Dallas band signing to a major label still mattered. Back when record labels still mattered. I’m almost positive I didn’t own a cellphone.
The band was called “alt-country” then, but it was more like country-adjacentrock and roll.
The group was already nearing the end of its first phase, the early period when Miller’s voice bore more of a twang and the music they played matched. The band was called “alt-country” then, but it was more like country-adjacent rock and roll. It wasn’t an act—Miller is a seventh-generation Texan, and, come on, Hammond nicknamed his son Tex. Maybe it wasn’t the real them, either.
They were that version of the Old 97’s for only four years or so—not long when you consider 12 studio albums, a live record, and various odds and ends over 25 years—but it is one that is trapped in amber for some of their fans. That’s fine. Too Far to Care was the culmination of what they’d done up to that point, the band that recorded 1994’s Hitchhike to Rhome and 1995’s Wreck Your Life at the height of its powers. No more so than on the opening track “Timebomb,” which sounds like a prairie fire burning down a honky-tonk, mostly thanks to Bethea’s iconic lead guitar line.
The next iteration of the band, heard on 1999’s Fight Songs and 2001’s Satellite Rides, was a power-pop powerhouse, Miller sounding more like he does in real life, the music likewise no longer dropping its g’s. This is the version that, in a just world, would and should have made them the kind of superstars that pack arenas in the fall and amphitheaters every summer. But even though it has its roots in Miller and Hammond’s pre-97’s group, Sleepy Heroes, it’s not exactly the real them either.
To me, the true sound of the Old 97’s is a mix of the two, discovered when it seemed like the band was content to tour once or twice a year and put out the occasional album, when the pressure to have a hit was removed. When they could be just a rock-and-roll band from Dallas—maybe the best this city has ever seen. Beginning with 2010’s The Grand Theatre Volume One and continuing through last year’s Graveyard Whistling, their most recent albums are like mini-greatest hits collections, the breadth of the group’s style captured over a dozen or so tracks each time out.
Here is the amazing thing: the Old 97’s might be as good now as they were 25 years ago. They never broke up, never got bad or boring. They never had that career-defining hit, but that doesn’t matter. They were a major plot point in the Vince Vaughn-Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy The Break-Up. They have their own festival in downtown Dallas every spring. They can still sell out tours. “But our jobs are all jobs, and sometimes they suck,” Miller sings on “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive.” “I love what I do, and I’ve had pretty good luck.”
They could do this another 25 years. I hope they do.