Old 97's Play a New Desolation Row

The alt-country Texans, which takes a page from Dylan's songbook-literally

Twelve years ago, on the phone with Old 97’s bassist Murry Hammond, he predicted longevity for the then-young band.

“We’re hoping we can just develop something over a long period of time,” Hammond said, knowing the alt-country Texans would have a tough time engaging MTV or radio. “In a crossover situation, with a band like us, you can either not win at all or win big. Hopefully, we’ll win big. Not with a fabulously successful single, but with a healthy career.”

All of that has come to pass. The band’s only near-hit, “Murder or a Heart Attack” from 1999, remains a twangy memory. But since crawling from the Dallas club circuit in 1993, the quartet have never slowed down. After a dozen albums and four solo efforts from singer Rhett Miller, the long-term success story continues.

“It’s nice to still be vital this many years in,” Miller says. “I used to tell record-company execs, ‘I really want to do this for 10 to 20 years.’ And look at the bands from when we started that did have a big hit, like Third Eye Blind. Maybe they made more money, but that’s not really what it’s about. We feel very lucky.”

Miller stayed serious about that 20-year plan. Born Stewart Ransom Miller II in Austin 40 years ago, he was educated at pricey private schools in Dallas. Something of a heartthrob, he started a folky singer/songwriter career there.

Then he and Hammond began the short-lived power-pop trio Sleepy Heroes, for which Miller rocked a 12-string Rickenbacker. “We broke up the day we got our CD back from the manufacturer,” he says.

Hammond and Miller reconciled over some old country ditties, and Old 97’s released their first record in 1994. Their albums performed respectably, but relentless touring built the band. “We thought we’d just have fun instead of getting signed to a major label,” says Miller. But a bidding war left Elektra holding the bag.

Of course, the industry has changed a bit since then. “The train has left the station,” Miller says. “The era of the gate-keeper is over. The middle-aged white men deciding what people get to listen to? Nobody should have that much power.”

Even keeping Old 97’s afloat on the road isn’t as easy as it used to be. “It’s tough for bands just starting out,” Miller explains. “Tour support, that $20,000 per month to go on the road that the record company used to give you? That’s been gone for years.”

When he’s not with Old 97’s, Miller is busy playing solo shows. “And that’s with hired musicians, so it’s harder to make money,” Miller says, “which is frustrating.” It was on a solo tour of Europe in 2009 that he wrote the two dozen songs that appear on The Grand Theatre, the pair of new Old 97’s discs that are being released six months apart. Volume One was released in October; the second volume arrives in May.

Asked whether they are taking a page from Harry Potter and Kill Bill, Miller isn’t amused. “I wanted a double album,” he says, “but apparently that’s anathema to record companies. They said no way could we release it as two discs ’cause nobody would have made any money.”

Opening with a scrappy, Replacements-ish rocker titled “The Grand Theatre,” Miller sets up an immediately tuneful, Sgt. Pepper’s-y self-referential setting. His storytelling, though not as wide-eyed as his early efforts, is still erudite and funny. As on every Old 97’s record, the tone changes immediately for the pair of tunes Hammond gets. “You Were Born to Be in Battle” evokes an old roadhouse, with quarter beers and neon signs. “Every Night Is Friday Night” stomps around a shuffle beat and scratchy, Byrds-esque chord changes. Every song seems to gives off conflicting whiffs of familiarity and newness.

Nowhere is that more apparent than on The Grand Theatre’s coup de grace, “Champaign, Illinois.” On road trips, Miller would sing Dylan’s “Desolation Row” with made-up lyrics, just as a way to stay awake. Driving to a gig, he started messing around with the name of the nearby college town.

“I love Champaign,” says Miller, who says he has caught some grief over the chorus, “You will not go to heaven/You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois.” “I’m just equating hell with purgatory. College kids live in a tiny bubble there, enjoying their last halcyon days,” he explains. “Some slackers can’t ever leave the town they grew up in.”

The grafted song became a live favorite. It didn’t seem feasible to record it because of the obvious legal issues. “But then we made our manager earn his money,” says Miller. Dylan, pleased with what he heard, called to ask Miller to send over his lyrics.

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