Vote the rock

Just call these the Old 97's Observer Music Awards

For some Dallas Observer Music Award winners, the accolade means a great deal; it signifies some recognition of hard work, of nights spent playing to bartenders for pocket change, of hours spent recording an album that only dozens would hear. For others, well, the award makes a nifty doorstop or paperweight; those folks do not need a translucent trophy to validate a life decision. Which is the way it ought to be: Nobody in the world ever picked up a guitar or started writing songs to win an award, and if you did, well, that's why you'll never get one.

By now, with four more Music Awards to their credit, Rhett Miller and the Old 97's surely must have passed Sara Hickman, New Bohemians, Tripping Daisy, and Reverend Horton Heat on the list of those who have won the most Observer Music Awards in the past decade-plus (damn, if only someone kept count). Two years ago, the 97's were named Best Act Overall--the same year, incidentally, the band was also named Most Improved Act, which is an odd way of saying thank you--a nod that went this year to the Toadies, who haven't released a new album, in, oh, four years. This year, Miller collects the awards for best Songwriter and Male Singer; the 97's, one more time, are honored as the best Country & Western band in Dallas, an accolade we wouldn't dare argue with, having heard Waylon Jennings and the band roar through "The Other Shoe" on a forthcoming single.

But Miller also takes home the honor for which he is most deserving: Local Musician of the Year, an award he has been due for nearly a decade. When everyone in Dallas music can be famous for a month, Miller's a long way into a career, having produced one solo album (Mythologies), a handful of cassettes and discs with Rhett's Exploding and Sleepy Heroes and whatever else he's done, and now three records with the 97's. Miller has grown up in public like few other local performers and survived the ordeal; his was a tiny spotlight, but an intense one nonetheless. Nothing worse than being judged by your next-door neighbors, nothing worse than having your friends listen to you as your voice cracks on stage.

He is no transient star in a town filled with bands who think cozying up to Redbeard means instant fame; he's paid his dues and come up broke more often than he cares to remember, having been a local hero when he was a teenager only to achieve that major-label deal almost a decade later. Unlike so many of the bands on this year's Music Awards ballot, Rhett Miller has a history that extends beyond yesterday--he's no Ronnie Dawson, but he's also no Shara. No one should be honored simply for surviving, especially when he's not even 30 yet, but Miller could have given up or burned out a long time ago; that he didn't is our reward.

The same could be said for Course of Empire, who are now nearing a decade in existence their own selves; in 1990, former Observer music editor Clay McNear picked the band as "one to watch in 1990," claiming their U2-on-a-Bauhaus-kick sound was gonna make them huge. Having suffered through their own travails, including the death of a record label, Course rebounded nicely to collect the awards for Single Release (1997) for "The Information," best Rock band, and best Industrial/Dance band--the latter two being odd bedfellows, but such is rock. Chad Lovell's nod as best producer is also well-earned, proof that the drummer keeps more than the beat.

Finally, after two years of being "new," the tomorrowpeople take home the award for being, well, the best New Act--good timing, too, since the band is one record into a career and already working on its second disc, the band's first for Geffen Records. And Buck Jones is honored as the Most Improved Act in town, which is difficult to dispute--here's a band with more promise than a Saturday night and a wallet loaded with twenties.

A complete list of winners is offered below, and the popularity contest rolls on for one more year. If your favorites didn't win, if you think the best wasn't honored, hey, don't sweat the small stuff--more than 4,500 people voted in this year's awards, and this is what they had to say about it. We congratulate all the winners and mention only that the Kadane brothers and Marchel Ivery and Ronnie Dawson and Will Johnson and all the rest don't need a trophy to remind them that the best reward is a collection of songs they can be proud of and, if we're lucky, we can appreciate. In the words of ASKA, whose performance during last Sunday's Music Awards showcase in Deep Ellum was a bizarro time-warp highlight, "We don't need anyone to tell us we're the best! We already fuckin' know we are!" Y'damn right.

Best Act Overall: Toadies. Rubberneck was released in 1994, and the second record may be released this year. (Who makes up the rules for these awards, anyway?) The undisputed champs, besting Course of Empire and the Old 97's by a few hundred votes. King of the world, ma.

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