The Old 97's Move Forward, While Looking Back

The first word on the new Old 97's disc? "And."

Fitting. The disc, as expected, is a continuation of the band's The Grand Theatre series, the second and last planned volume from the batch of songs the band began working on in April 2010 at Sons of Hermann Hall, back when they hoped to release a double album instead of two volumes. The first, released last October, was something of a smash, earning the band the biggest critical raves and touring audiences of their career. Rightfully so: The Grand Theatre, Vol. One was the best thing the band had released since the '90s.

Lucky for them the second installment, due out July 5, is just as good.

There's more to the Old 97's than those two guys up front.
Paul Moore
There's more to the Old 97's than those two guys up front.

Location Info


Sons of Hermann Hall

3414 Elm St.
Dallas, TX 75226

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Downtown & Deep Ellum

Vol. Two is yet another classic 97's romp, filled with snarling vocals and an overall bitchy 'tude. Like the first in the series, it's also a little experimental—by 97's standards, at least. Whereas past albums such as 2008's Blame It On Gravity fell flat as the band tinkered with their proven, successful formula and aimed for a more pop aesthetic, the band's Grand Theatre installments have been alt-country affairs through and through, with just a handful of welcome dalliances. This time around, that experimentation comes largely in the form of "White Port," a track penned by bassist and co-vocalist Murry Hammond that sounds downright Flogging Molly-ish.

Aside from that, it's pretty much chugging alt-country offered up at various paces. That was all intentional, of course, because that's the band's bread and butter. And, over a recent brunch at AllGood Cafe in Deep Ellum, the two remaining Dallas-dwelling members of the cherished Dallas-bred band admitted as much, while also acknowledging the fact that their band's main songwriters have tendencies to draw the band away from that sound.

"The two directions that our band can go because of the two principal songwriters are [frontman] Rhett [Miller] being too poppy and artsy-fartsy, and Murry being too bluegrass-y and folksy," says guitarist Ken Bethea.

Drummer Philip Peeples nods along: "But it's from the heart," he adds. "They both bring it from the heart."

Bethea nods back: "At the same time, though, I'm not into really artsy-fartsy pop," he says. "Nor am I really into the hillbilly stuff."

It's an interesting string of conversation from this pair: Despite the fact that they're mostly known as the quietest members of the four-piece, they might be the two members most responsible for the band's distinctive style. Peeples' drums and Bethea's guitars are in many ways at the core of what makes the band's music so recognizable. Sure, there's Miller's hyper-literate lyricism. And, yeah, there's Hammond's obsession with history. But it's Peeples' train beats and Bethea's muscular surf-rock guitar parts that really drive the band's sound. They always have been—something that Miller and Hammond, the band's usual spokesmen, have long acknowledged. It makes sense, then, that the pair considers it their job in the studio to keep the band's sound true.

"The band filter weeds out all that stuff," Peeples says with something of a smirk.

"You have to kind of argue against it without hurting their feelings or whatever," Bethea adds.

Walking that line can be tricky. Take Hammond's "White Port" for example.

"There's yodeling and stuff in it," Bethea says, not entirely amused. "That song goes back to Blame it on Gravity, maybe before. And Murry really explained what he wanted to do with it. There was a treatment he kept hearing in his head."

"So we put a beat to it, exactly how he'd explained it, and he said it made it sound too lighthearted and fun," explains Peeples. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, exactly!' That's the Old 97's formula—to sing about death and whatever, but play it in a happy way. And he was real personal about it. He didn't like the way our treatment worked out. So he held onto that for a while. But that's what happens to songs with us. They come back."

Point is, they often come back better.

Surprising as it may be to hear the band break out into an Irish-accented shout-along as they do at the start of "White Port," the song stands as a shining success, a drinking song that ended up as contemplative as it is lighthearted.

That's hardly the only example of this kind of song progress. Perhaps a better study is "Ivy," the song that immediately follows "White Port" on the album's track listing. Bethea describes it as a "Day One Old 97's song, from back before Philip even joined the band," which traces its origins to circa 1993. A former set list staple—and oftentimes a set-closer in the days before "Timebomb" and "Four Leaf Clover"—the band never recorded the song, in part, Bethea says, because Ivy is a real girl, and Ivy is her real name and, fun fact, Ivy is an ex-girlfriend of Miller's. According to Peeples and Bethea, Miller was always too gun-shy to record it—something that always irked Bethea, who says he'd always loved the song, and always hoped the band would come back around to it.

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After the great Too Far to Care, both Rhett and Murry lost their way. There were thoughts of getting more poppy, expanding the audience, which is what Electra Records wanted and when it didn't happen, the band got the boot. In between Too Far and The Grand Theatre, there may be one album of good songs, maybe. And some of the stuff is plum awful. Oppenheimer? Please. But it's good to see the band doing what they've always done best. And Murry should get more songs. I still say he's the best songwriter in the band.


I still love Blame it on Gravity also. I think it was brilliant.I also love The Grand Theatre, but I don't think their sound needed rehabilitation, as some reviews seem to imply! The band is consistently brilliant, as far as I'm concerned.


Great review and interview @petefreedman, but am I the only one who loved/still loves Blame It On Gravity?

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