The Old 97's are on a roll, one that started in 1994. While they rode in on the mid-1990s No Depression wave of insurgent country bands, they've outlasted most of their peers, repelled a generation of musical trends and survived their lead singer's solo career—typically the death knell of any successful band. And they did it on their own musical terms. The big-fisted Texans are fluent in the vocabulary of country and western, but those instincts always serve at the pleasure of rock 'n' roll.
Twenty-three years down the road, singer Rhett Miller's songs are as entertaining as ever with their literate wordplay and twisted humor to craft tales of love gone weird. Most Messed Up, from 2014, was a Molotov cocktail of an album, a foul-mouthed fireball of songs about drugs, booze, sex and the giddy celebration of all three. "Longer Than You've Been Alive," for instance, is an autobiographical epic of the trials and triumphs of a hard-rocking band that's been burning down stages "from Memphis to Mars" for over two decades.
Most Messed Up was a bracing slap in the puss, a reminder that not only are these Dallas boys still around, but they still pack a ferocious punch. Ken Bethea's Wild West guitars and the rollicking drums of Philip Peeples are front and center in a noisy, exhilarating, high-octane mix.
The new album, Graveyard Whistling, is a slightly more subtle affair. Well, the way a double martini is more subtle than a Mason jar of 'shine. More of the songs inhabit the mid-tempo shuffle that is the band's stock-in-trade. Oohs and aahs provide some smooth texture, and steel guitar adds a little sweet 'n' sour twang on songs like "All Who Wander," one of Miller's prettier compositions. His voice, like his band's sound, is utterly free of artifice or affectation. The album was recorded at the same little Texas studio where they recorded their major label debut, Too Far to Care, 20 years ago. They have a few more lines around their eyes, more gray in the hair and families to raise and mortgages to pay, but their sound has come full circle nearly unchanged, though their attitudes are more defiant than ever. "Jesus loves you more than I do/Just because he doesn't know you," sings Miller on "Jesus Loves You." It's a perfect companion to the album's centerpiece, "Good With God," which features guest singer Brandi Carlile. As God, Carlile sings, "You're pretty thick so I'll tell you twice/Many a man has paid the price." If the power and menace of her delivery can bring a shiver to this atheist, imagine the effect it would have on someone like Greg Gianforte.
According to my moth-eaten memory, it was around 2001 when my band opened for the Old 97's at UM's Copper Commons. Before the show a couple of us went "backstage" (a folding table and some chairs behind the portable stage) and chatted with the band. Bassist Murry Hammond patiently listened to our fanboy fawning as we raved about his harmonies with Miller. I compared their chemistry to that of Buck Owens and Don Rich, whose legendary Bakersfield sides influenced pretty much every roots rock musician who came after them. I suggested to Hammond and Miller that they should travel around the country and charge people money to give harmony lessons. They exchanged a look, and I'll never forget Miller's reply: "That's kind of what we're doing, isn't it?"
The Old 97's play the Top Hat Mon., March 20. Doors at 7:30 PM, show at 8 PM. $25/$22 advance.