Ja, das is country punk

It's boom times and heady days for Dallas' favorite insurgent honky-tonk combo, the Old 97's; the band has just returned from a quick fortnight in Europe, where it met with continental acclaim, and now is hashing things out with a veritable Greek chorus of major record labels, including Elektra, MCA, and Mercury, negotiations that have dragged on since the South by Southwest music festival in March.

The European tour, built around two major festivals and a couple of smaller club dates, was a gas according to Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller. After surviving a recuperative night in London--"People were yelling at us because we'd never look the right way when we crossed the street," Miller reports--the band spent a week in Switzerland, then a week in Norway, pacing gigs at a leisurely enough pace to allow some sightseeing beyond club bathrooms and van windows.

Things in chocolate and watch country didn't get off to that smooth a start:For one, Miller's luggage went astray, and before it could catch up to him, he found himself at the festival, sitting next to John Prine. "You know--great--here I am, tired, dirty, no clean clothes, and now I have to be clever," Miller remembers. "He was pretty nice, though."

Journalists--well, music journalists--aren't any smarter on the other side of the Atlantic, despite their cool accents. "Everybody had the same question," Miller says, slipping into his best Sergeant Schultz inflections. "You are the mix of the country and the punk, yes?" The musicians did their best to hide their disappointment. "No one asked us what we thought of John Cougar Mellencamp."

During its stay in the Alps, the band hung out with Will and Charlie Sexton ("Really nice guys," Miller says) and played a Zurich club date that Elektra Records' Seymour Stein attended, staying to drink and sing old Jimmie Rodgers songs until early in the morning. Guitarist Ken Bethea ran into Kris Kristofferson in their hotel elevator and called him "dude."

Norway was a bit different. Kris was absent, for one thing, and "they eat fish--fisk--all the time," Miller says, still turned off. "It was too much." The bars took some getting used to, too. "The sun set, like, at midnight or one, and you'd leave the bar, see the sun, and feel this guilt, like you'd stayed up all night long doing terrible things."

Jimmie Dale Gilmore joined the Old 97's onstage during one club gig in Halden, Norway, for the band's version of his "Dallas." "I thought, 'Oh my God, I changed his melody, he's gonna be pissed!'" Miller relates, "but we got to be good friends." Miller has a raft of stories about the trip, including tales of drinking beer and eating fresh salmon among beautiful fjords and of opening for the DeLillos, Norway's biggest rock band. "There were thousands of people, and rows of 14-, 15-year-old girls in front, just doing a total Beatlemania thing, screaming," Miller says, sounding not unappreciative. "It was amazing."

More amazing still is the ever-widening window of opportunity before the group. In addition to the ongoing label negotiations, there's a short Labor Day tour with Jimmie Dale planned, as well as a fall return to Europe and--somewhere, somehow--a record to make. The band's July 20 show at Sons of Hermann Hall may well be the hometown's only chance to see them this summer. The guys also are talking to Exene Cervenka about collaborating on a single that could come out at the beginning of next year. "Wherever she wants us," Miller avers, "we'll crawl there."

What's my motivation?
Talk about your typecasting, but that was Paul Slavens playing an insane fireworks salesman on one of the latest Texas Lotto commercials. Slavens may be best known as the leader of Zappa-esque and now-defunct jazz-rock band Ten Hands, but he's also working on an album with former Pearl Jam drummer Dave Abbruzzese and performing his twisted '90s cabaret act, "Dr. Paul's Freak Show," at local venues like Club Dada.

It's actually one of two Lotto spots currently running in which Slaven's mug appears, the most recent installment of what's amounting to a nice run of work for the singer, composer, and pianist. The other ad, which features Slavens as an insane painter, is seen less and "is actually better," Slavens claims, a dynamic no doubt familiar to him throughout his career with Ten Hands. Slavens has made three other Lotto ads playing "various and sundry freaks."

His Big Break came when he was accompanying a pal, improvisational comic and actor Scott Parkin, leading a backup band that included current Spot member Reggie Rueffer and former Ten Hands drummer Alan Emert. There was a part in the show where Slavens took random suggestions from the audience and extemporaneously wove them into a song. Afterward, a rep from the Kim Dawson Agency who had seen the show came up to Slavens and "basically said that I could have a career making TV commercials if I wanted," Slavens recalls. "They gave me their card, and afterward Scott came up and asked me, 'Do you know how lucky you are?'"

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Matt Weitz

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