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