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"I guess I've come all the way around," he says with a chuckle. "I've always believed that there's something reductive about it. Because it's not all we are. But if you had to call yourself something...I guess, if I had a gun to my head, and had to say what kind of music the Old 97's make, it'd have to be alt-country. For fuck's sake, we were there when they coined the term. The first time it got used was in a freaking article about our band. OK, that's fine. I'll be that."
And, for the better, that's what the first volume of The Grand Theatre is, too. It remains to be seen how the second volume, which, as a concession to the band's double-disc desires, will be released next May, will play out (Miller admits that, on some level, it's a softer record than the first), but this one is vintage 97's.
The opening and title track finds Miller snarling over a classic Bethea surf-guitar line, boasting that "We know where we are/We're not very far away" in the song's chorus. It might not be intended as a statement of the band's mindset on this release, but it sure serves as one. The third track, "The Magician," again finds the band in its wheelhouse, combining its storytelling and love-song writing talents over a driving rhythm from Peeples and Hammond. Hammond's two songs at the band's front similarly go back to touchstones; their titles alone, "You Were Born to Be In Battle" and "You Smoke Too Much," explain their aim capably. Meanwhile, "Please Hold On While The Train Is Moving," may be this disc's "Four Leaf Clover." And it even has some experimentation in it: What starts off as a driving anthem breaks down into a surprising but welcome shimmy toward the song's end.
In short, The Grand Theatre, Volume One is a strong release. Front to back, it's the closest the band has, and likely ever will, come to recapturing Too Far to Care's magic.
More important, it's the sound of a band finally coming to grips with its place. That much explains "A State of Texas," says Miller, while also admitting that the song is about as annoyingly "jingoistic" as a song can get, thanks to its Texas name-checking premise.
"I do really love the idea of the Old 97's moving into the next phase of our career where we're sort of regarded as a staple of Texas music or some sort of elder statesmen of Texas rock," Miller says. "I like that."
But for a band that's retaining the prowess of its youth, he might be selling the 97's a little short—especially, since, for the first time in a long time, they're once again proving themselves worthy of their adoring fans' excitement.
"I don't know if I'm ready to be an old man," Miller says. "But I'm ready to be a legend. How's that?"
He's joking, of course. Or is he? With this disc, the band is back on course to reach that end.
"Yeah, I'll take that," he says with a healthy laugh. "An alt-country legend."