By Rip Rowan
Rip Rowan is a Dallas producer and engineer whose credits include artists like the Old 97s, the Deathray Davies, Whiskey Folk Ramblers, Fate Lions and Dovetail. He also performs on keyboards and drums (sometimes at the same time) with his indie singer-songwriter wife, Vanessa Peters and other local Dallas artists. This year, Rowan oversaw the remastering for Old 97's debut Hitchhike to Rhome for its 20th anniversary.
"Old bands know it's impossible to make a perfect album. But young bands have enough naivety to think they just might pull it off."
So wrote Old 97's guitarist Ken Bethea on September 11, 2014 for the Dallas Observer. Ken was speaking, of course, about the Toadies. But his quote applies equally well to the Old 97's debut album, Hitchhike to Rhome.
I first saw the band at Club Dada in 1994 and was blown away by them for being a really complete band. You had the whole package: A killer rhythm section, a fiery guitarist and an engaging, energetic lead singer with a great rock 'n' roll voice.
But beyond the mechanics, the Old 97's had something most other bands lack: a complete artistic vision. They weren't staying in the safe '90s territory of grunge or pop, but instead proposed a risky combination of hillbilly twang, roots rock and punk. The Old 97's were a young band, but they had a clear vision of their band's image, sound and approach. And they nailed it perfectly.
That's what really floored me. It's like they were blasted out of another dimension where country and rock never diverged -- a world where Merle Haggard and Joe Strummer and Hank Williams and Johnny Cash all hung out and song-swapped and drank Jameson. (And who wouldn't want to hang out there?)
That's what you have to understand about Hitchhike to Rhome: forgive the expression, but it's a concept album. For that matter, the Old 97's were a concept band. Hitchhike is overly ambitious, sprawling and maybe too long, but only because the Old 97's had a big idea they wanted to present.
I thought that record was fantastic precisely because it was so honest and earnest. There was a complete and utter lack of pretense. Nobody was second-guessing the commercial viability of being really quirky. The songs were clever and goofy and weirdly timeless. That record doesn't sound like 1954, or 1984, or 2004. And it really doesn't sound like 1994, the year of its release.
But there's one thing Hitchhike does sound like: North Texas. From the drawl in Rhett Miller's voice to the stumbling lope of the rhythm section to the twang of Bethea's guitar, the very first 30 seconds of the album are unmistakably North Texas, and the band never deviates from that sound.
That's the concept.
And then there are the words:
Well, I'm pulling into Cleveland In a seven-seater tour van There's eight of us, so I'm sleeping on the floor The guy that plays the banjo Keeps on handing me the Old Crow Which multiplies my sorrow, I can't take it anymore
It's so innocuous. It's so unpretentious. It's so deft. It's so fucking clever.
I think the reason the album sounds so timeless is because the band completely resisted the urge to follow any of the musical trends of the time. It's hard to appreciate how left-field this album was in 1994. It was only in that year that the idea of a "retro" album first mainstreamed with the Counting Crows' "Mr. Jones." But the Old 97's were retro on a whole different level -- not just a retro guitar tone, but a whole retro band. And in creating a "rootsy" record, they inevitably made a record that is "North Texas-y", because that's where the band's roots are.
It was when I was remixing it, listening to individual tracks soloed in the mix, that it dawned on me that I was really listening to a demo gone viral. Songs were incompletely tracked and edited, with little flubs and recording errors that were probably intended to be fixed but the band ran out of time and/or money. For instance, there's the part in "Wish the Worst" where Miller sings, "Why am I here?" and there's just this obvious recording punch-in glitch on the words "why am." There's a place on "Hands Off" where, if I recall correctly, you can clearly hear Miller say "fuck" after a blown vocal take. Obviously, it was intended to get fixed, but time ran out.
When I listened to the tracks in isolation, I got a real sense of the speed at which this record must have been made. Most of the songs were obviously recorded in one or two takes with just a vocal overdub, if that. Many have no overdubs or punch-ins at all. And so there are all these imperfections that, especially in today's auto-tuned, beat-mapped world, would instantly get ironed out by the engineer or editor. There were times when I would listen to a soloed track and reflexively want to "fix" the imperfections that I heard, like an out-of-tune vocal or a guitar flub. But I resisted the impulse.
The band could have gone in and recorded "perfect" versions of their five best songs. That's what a lot of bands would have done with a tight budget and no record label; you do it to try to get a song good enough for radio or the attention of a label. But that would have failed to communicate this big vision that the band had. So instead they recorded everything -- something like 20 songs total -- and put them all out.
And that's why this album really needs to be taken in context. For their debut, the band asks us to see them, not as four guys from Dallas trying to out-rock or out-cool the next band in the big-dick contest that is so often the Dallas music scene, but more like four guys from Decatur or Marfa or somewhere who had never heard grunge or black-hat country and didn't know that record stores are divided by category because they still buy their records at Woolworth's. It's not about "perfect performances" (whatever those are) or that one great song. It's about completeness of vision.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about how the Pepsi Challenge taste-test failed because it relied on tiny sips of a soft drink, when in reality, most people seem to consider 48 ounces to be a serving. What tastes great at first can quickly become tiring, while other flavors develop and satisfy more and more over time. Albums are like this, too: Some collections of catchy singles quickly burn their way through our attention span, while other, less flashy works become the ones we return to again and again for their nuance or subtlety.
Hitchhike to Rhome is one of these complex albums. The band was too young and inexperienced (and underfunded) at the time to make the alt-country White Album. But rather than writing a string of heard-it-before pop hits or me-too sludge-ballads, these guys set out to make something really unique and timeless and complete, they mostly nailed it. Hitchhike represents a time capsule of the origin of "alternative country" music, and it remains one of the most effortless blends of folky country and punk music ever recorded.
By the time the band asked me to remix the record for its 20th anniversary re-release, I had probably listened to it over a thousand times in its entirety. But when I turn "4 Leaf Clover" up on my studio monitors, I can still close my eyes and just imagine I'm watching the band pound it out to a sweating, packed, pogo-ing house at the old Club Dada.
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