This year's model

So it takes a big holiday to lure the Old 97's onto a Dallas stage. See, Rhett don't live here anymore. Even after he sang (with great conviction, we might add) about Los Angeles: "I might've wound up in L.A. pannin' for gold/Found me a woman to warm up with when the water got cold/I heard that there ain't no gold there, there's just line upon line of cocaine/I been there once and I ain't gonna go there again"-he did just the opposite and moved out there for good. How's the water, buddy?

Jabs aside, the Old 97's are still one of the greatest things to grace a North Texas stage any time they care to, and the Gypsy Tea Room is the best new stage in town. So fittingly, the favorite foursome-Rhett, Ken, Murry, and Philip-will spend their New Year's Eve playing all their rock-meets-billy-meets-bluegrass tunes for a Tea Room crowd. And if that doesn't sound like a better than decent holiday option to you, then you must have a "personal" relationship with Dick Clark, and we feel for you.

Rooted in Dallas, signed to Elektra Records last year, and still treading water from its last full-length recording, 1997's Too Far to Care, the Old 97's have been somewhat out of sight and out of mind in these parts for nearly a year now. Occasionally Miller visits Big D, and the band will play a set at Barley House or some such out-of-the-way venue. But don't bother thinking that the band's hometown scarcity is due to burgeoning fame and fortune. Too Far to Care barely went wood, selling a promisingbut puny, by major label standards-30,000 copies. It may be chock full of glittering gems-such as the hit-single-that-never-was "Time Bomb"-but the radio still doesn't know quite what to do with it.

Radio programming directors will probably be just as bewildered by the band's latest batch of tunes, many of which were unveiled at a performance this summer at Trees. All the familiar trademarks were there, but the songs had more soul, more heartache, more everything. It felt less like a former folkie trying on his new country duds, and more like the real thing. Every song was a tears-in-my-beer classic, banishing Miller's past missteps (his struggling, Sassy-approved solo debut, Mythologies, and bands like Rhett's Exploding and Sleepy Heroes) further into the back of the closet. These days, he's one of the sharpest lyricists around, as that set at Trees proved. Only Miller could turn a song about his cat running away into one of the most beautiful paeans to love lost penned here or anywhere in the last decade. In a just world, when the as-yet-untitled album is released sometime next year, it should make the quartet top-of-the-pops superstars. Unfortunately, in the world we live in, it'll be lucky to sell more copies than Too Far to Care.

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So while the 97's wait to unveil their new record, the rest of us can wallow in the ones that proved their talent in the first place: "St. Ignatius" and "Wish the Worst" off of 1994's indie debut Hitchhike to Rhome; "Victoria," "The Other Shoe," and "Big Brown Eyes," from 1995's Wreck Your Life; and the tunes from Too Far that should have launched them into the big bright spotlight: "Barrier Reef" and "Salome." And in this limbo-esque meantime, we can all be thankful that the band (or Miller sans band) isn't playing every other local stage every damn weekend like they used to. Rhett didn't win his "hardest-working man in Dallas music" tag for nothing.

New Year's Eve at the Tea Room should evoke the good old days of just last year and the year before, when the 97's would take a big venue like Sons of Hermann Hall and turn it into a honkytonk for the night; the sweat, the crowd, the beer, and one great song after another. Sure we miss 'em. But remember: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

--Christina Rees

The Old 97's perform at the Gypsy Tea Room, 2548 Elm St., on Thursday, December 31. Hot Club of Cowtown opens. For more information, call (214) 744-9779.

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