Old 97s ... Longer than you've been alive

Always the best little band that could,
since the days alt-country-rock
to a train beat was born

If you want to know anything about Old 97s chief songwriter Rhett Miller, all you need to do is go to their most previous album, "Most Messed Up," his mid-life crisis masterpiece, and listen to "Longer Than You Have Been Live." Just do it. What are you doing here? He gives it all up with quite confessional dash as the band gets all flexible to a train beat and desert rock guitar ...

Well it must be hard to get partnered with me
some narcissism some O.C.D.
but love that comes easy's a fake or a fluke
love is a marathon sometimes you puke
speaking of which there has been alcohol
oceans and oceans but that isn't all
mountains of weed a handful of pills
none of the hard stuff that shit kills
we've been doing it longer than you've been alive
twenty good years of about twenty-five

When the Old 97s came out of Dallas in the early 1990s they were associated with a new term at the time, alt-country, and it proved to be no mere fad. The durability of the post-alternative field of acts that the Old 97s has proven to be pretty strong. Such artists as Ryan Adams, who started out with Whiskeytown, as wells as the Drive-By Truckers (and, oh Lord, the Jayhawks), Wilco and the group of musicians who eventually became Son Volt all succeeded with their brand of cranky, homespun sincerities, all seeming to call from somewhere out in the Mid-west driven by what Old 97s guitarist Ken Bethea calls "big desert guitar" and "train beats."

"Every one of those artists still do kick ass gigs," Bethea says of the genre his band helped to pioneer. "Considering how nobody has become famous, maybe the biggest of them is Wilco, but how many people are there who really know about them? ... When you look at something like new wave, how many of those bands have made a relevant record in 20 years? But guys like us, and Ryan Adams and Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) knew what they were doing. I just like to think that we are all just better at it."

The four members of the band have been together for the entirety of the band's history. So when the band lost its drummer for a few weeks due to injuries suffered a fall, it felt pretty strange not to have a practical member of the family around during the tour.

"Since the very beginning we just fundamentally like each other. We love this band and we are really focused on it. We need the creative cool it creates for us. We need to make music that sounds like nobody else," he says.

In the early '90s, Bethea joined band members Rhett Miller (vocals, guitar), Murray Hammond (bass), Philip Peeples (drums) after he quit a job in the defense industry training programmers building big-winged B2 bombers.

"I quit my job, I was so sick of it, and at the same time I had been just drinking beer and playing songs with Rhett and Murray," he says. "Two weeks after I quit we booked a gig at a little coffee shop in Dallas and it just never stopped. Three years later we were playing on David Letterman."
Critically acclaimed but never having what could be called a hit single, the Old 97s are basically the little band that could. Never sounding too big for arena rock, with a few exceptions during a period where they were trying to stretch their boundaries, have kept a kind of hot band with a club sound intact.

The new Old 97s record, "Graveyard Whistling" finds the band still playing to the "big desert guitars" and the train beat, and is essentially the same approach to their sound that began with their first records. With the exception that instead of doing boy-meet-girl songs, they are now men in mid-life crisis songs. And enough doomed, odd-ball songs about Jesus to make you wonder if they were auditioning for Christian radio.

"There's a lot of dealing with our own mortality," Bethea says.

The album was recorded in Tornillo, Texas, where there is a veritable bed-and-breakfast style venue for bands about 40 miles outside of El Paso. The band had recorded their first record there. And when they recorded this time they stayed in the same room and found notes in a drawer that they had left there more than 20 years before.

The album begins with "I Don't Want to Die in This Town," a title taken from a Frank Sinatra anecdote about him refusing to be treated for a serious health condition while he was on tour because he hated the place. Bethea says he could relate to the story because of the transitory life of a musician.

"When we do these shows we will wake up in a cool town like Eugene, Oregon, and we might go do the coffee shops and see what there is to see, and then by the time we do the show it's like the greatest feeling in the world. But we don't want to wake up the next day in that place. It's like what could we possibly do in Eugene, in that point, that we haven't done already?"


Son Volt goes blues-core

The trouble all started in Belleville, Illinois. It was sometime during the late 1980s, early 1990s. As the pearls jammed and the Janes got addicted, as thin white dudes from Britian to Australia were leading the alternativeland wave, the whole hip of it was in jeopardy. Partly because of two insurgent types in Belleville, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. The two, who formed a band called Uncle Tupelo, basically hijacked country and rock, and all of the critics raved for it, due to the music's cranky intensity, and alt-country was born as a good short-hand to describe the movement around 1993. But then Farrar and Tweedy proved to be just too damned prolific for their band's own good, so they split into two bands, Wilco and Son Volt.
Between the two, Wilco has made the most of its under-the-radar status, but comparing that band's last album and Son Volt's latest, "Notes in Blue," maybe the later has more stayin' power, as the tortoise to Wilco's hare.
After a focused effort to produce a record of pure honky tonk songs, Son Volt's latest is more blues-core. And if the earth tones of Son Volt have proven to be a little too rustic over the years, the new live shows are turned up loud and uptempo, indicating signs of a great little rock band gaining confidence in its purist sensibilities.
"I was aiming at the convergence of where blues, folk and country meet," Farrar says in a telephone interview prior to his show in Flagstaff. "The process in the studio is pretty intuitive. I don't do a lot of verbalizing about what direction we take."
The album includes a few rockers and many more down-in-the-dust acoustic numbers tending toward melancholy. The uptempo tunes such as "Lost Souls" and "Sinking Down" have a perfect crunch and that straight-forward punked-up-blues energy that's hard to get right in a studio. On "Notes in Blue" there's a lot of good crackling energy going on.
But digging down into the roots of the national sound is a certain specialty for Son Volt. They have an out-of-time style that once existed and never existed, where the stream of Farrar's consciousness views America through a dirty windshield. Farrar is an artful authentic, a heartland impressionist. His musician's tools are antiques that haven't blown out or fallen apart yet.
"On 'Sinking Down' I played a bottleneck slide with a quintessential blues tuning," he says. "The recording was primitive and straightforward. The approach was to make an organic recording. One example was for us to use an old amplifier which we actually used on the album cover for our first record, 'Trace,' which we had modified. It is an ancient sounding amp and that was the right aesthetic."
Another rave-up tune, "Lost Souls," could be about Son Volt, the band, existing in the space of some under heard sub-pop genre, where they are most certainly cool but they aren't household names, with Farrar singing, "Let the music play on/This world won't give us the time." But he says the song is more about others, about those far less fortunate than Son Volt, as far popularity goes.
"I was looking at it from the perspective of where a lot of bands and performers fall by the wayside. Not so much from my own but their perspective," he says.
The best aspect of any Son Volt record is Farrar's voice, which has that quality Neil Young might describe as "real as the day is long." On how he was able to sing with a kind of world-weary soul that's completely unteachable, Farrar says "My mom would have a lot of opinions on that. And in the early days I sang a lot angrier, since I was listening to a lot of punk and rock, but (his voice) got taken over by age and wisdom. Plus I haven't smoked cigarettes for 30 years. I tried that, but it didn't work for me."
And what is the source of their mythic-Americana spirit?
"I used to read a lot as a teenager working at a used bookstore that my mom owned. I do a lot of stream of consciousness," he says. "Everything from the Minutemen to the Flying Burrito Brothers. It's all part of the big continuum. That's where we came from."