Winner for: Country & Western
It should be noted up front that the very week the Old 97's take home this award, the band is releasing a record that wouldn't know Country or Western if either one bought Rhett Miller a Pearl at Adair's. Granted, most of the readers who bestowed this accolade upon the 97's have not yet heard the released-this-week Fight Songs--unless they hang out at the Barley House. They know the 97's only from the band's three previous outings: Hitchhike to Rhome, Wreck Your Life, and Too Far to Care--discs that made Miller, Murry Hammond, Philip Peeples, and Ken Bethea the pull-out centerfolds in many an issue of No Depression, that bi-semi-annual-monthly magazine devoted to former pop musicians who discovered Johnny Cash in a box of Cracker Jack. They know the 97's as the band that filtered pop through a pilfered twang, that played "country" only by default, that put the honky in honky-tonk. How else to explain the Old 97's walking away with an award that was sure to go to odds-on fave the Dixie Chicks, who owned this thing well before they sold out their country souls for multiplatinum records and Grammy bookends? Say what you will about the Chicks--and God knows we've said plenty of late--but they're a lot closer to country than the 97's these days, even if that's just Nashville's idea of country...or music so slick, you can't even hold it in your hands.
Fight Songs is easily the best of the Old 97's records, if only because it feels the least forced, the most honest--especially compared with, say, Wreck Your Life, which sounds just like a "country" record released on a Chicago-based label. (In other words: tries too hard.) The new disc is a step backward for Miller and Hammond--I loved this thing the first time around, when it was released in 1990 and titled Under a Radio Sun by Sleepy Heroes--accompanied by a thousand leaps forward. No more hiding behind irony; no more substituting twang for substance; no more sad songs played at a thousand miles an hour. From Neil Young start to Seals & Croft finish (but in a good way, and there is such a thing), Fight Songs finally offers proof that when Rhett Miller and the boys put their minds and hearts to it, they can make a Pure Pop Record full of delightful songs, sad songs, jubilant songs, poignant songs. In other words: real songs.
Finally, the hiccup is gone from Miller's voice, replaced by a deepfelt clarity. After years of wondering whether it was the many mood of Rhett Miller, we find the boy's no longer afraid of the high notes or the low points or the ground in between. Listen only to "Jagged," a song that could easily have been buried beneath its borrowed godfather-of-grunge crunch. Once upon a time, Miller and Hammond would have played the song for kicks, laying down vocals like a construction worker building with brick and mortar: Hey, man, it's a job. But "Jagged," like the rest of the record, plays up the vocals and plays down the y'allternative cornpone. Never has Miller sounded straighter or sweeter in his entire life. Here's a guy you wanna root for, even if he's still the prettiest guy in all the land singing about how women break his little ol' heart. Top it off with Hammond's fuzzbox drawl and Bethea's distorto-drone on "Crash on the Barrelhead," and here's a record Elektra can finally work with. Never mind the embarrassment of riches elsewhere: "19," "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)," "Oppenheimer," and so forth.
As documented in this paper three weeks ago--and, let's face it, for the past decade--it's been an uphill battle for Rhett Miller ever since he grew his hair long and sauntered around the St. Mark's campus with an acoustic guitar slung across his slight frame. A decade ago, he was just a boy in his late teens trying to emulate his Brit-pop idols, singing his fancy-lad poetry in a fey British accent; listen now to Mythologies and marvel at how illusory it sounds. It was all so charming, yes, but nothing beyond that--though that was enough to make the girls at Dada go ga-ga for that boy with the teardrops in his voice. Yet to watch Miller go through transformation after transformation was utterly captivating for those who knew he was just talented enough to appear lost, confused. It seems forever ago that Rhett's Exploding imploded on Chumley's one night, making a godawful noise that sounded as if someone left the melodies in the van. Back then, people wondered how he'd pick up the pieces. Nothing's worse than being a guy who lived down to his potential.