DFW Music News

After 30 Years Together, the Old 97’s Are Anything but 'Jagged'

The Old 97's are celebrating 30 years as a band.
The Old 97's are celebrating 30 years as a band. Alysse Gafkjen
CORRECTION, Jan. 25: The original version of this story misstated which label released Old 97's debut LP. The story has been changed to include the correct information.

Last March on a sprawling soundstage outside Atlanta, Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea and Philip Peeples stood together on an elevated drum riser with hundreds watching. A-list Hollywood stars in full makeup, hordes of costumed extras and a film crew gathered around the members of the Old 97’s, but they weren’t there to hear the Dallas-born band of rocking alt-country pioneers. Bzermilkitokolok and the Knowheremen were about to cut loose.

Oh, and Kevin Bacon was there too. The famously connected actor had been on stage with the band, acting as lead singer since this scenario wasn’t quite surreal enough already. Miller, Hammond, Bethea and Peeples were inhabiting the roles of extraterrestrials who had learned how to rock like Earthlings for The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.

Near the end of one of the days the band filmed while in full space-alien makeup, James Gunn, the film’s director who is now the head of DC Studios, grabbed a microphone, asked for quiet on the set and, with his voice booming from the giant speakers throughout the space, gave a short speech about how the Old 97’s had been his and his brother Sean’s favorite band for many, many years.

The famed director told the assembled aliens and union laborers that he would see the band perform any time it came through town when he lived in St. Louis and Chicago in his formative years. He talked about how he always looked for ways to share the band’s music with the world. Mega movie stars Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldana were up front and center, along with the furry Rocket Raccoon.

Gunn told the crowd that when Disney approached him about directing a holiday special, he agreed because, in this case, he knew how he could incorporate his favorite band into the project, introducing them to a new audience in a way they had never experienced before. The Old 97’s had released a Christmas record in 2018, after all, and this was a holiday film.

As otherworldly as it all was for Miller, the band’s lead singer, he was present enough in the moment to sort of scroll back in his mind through some of the shows he remembered playing in St. Louis and Chicago, wondering which ones Gunn and his brother might have attended.

“Was it one of the times we played at Cicero’s in St. Louis where I would jump and always hit my head on that metal rafter above the stage?” the singer asked himself. “Or was it one of those nights in Chicago when we finally started playing to big audiences?”

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The Old 97's play at The Gingerman in Dallas in 1995.
Tara Renshaw/Courtesy of Ken Bethea
One thing Miller did know was that he was getting choked up, right there on stage in front of hundreds of people, inside the makeup that took over three hours for two makeup artists to apply. It meant so much to him that his band had meant so much to the director — to anyone, for that matter. Even now, he gets a bit emotional about the memory when talking about it.

“It was one of those out-of-body moments where I thought, ‘This is what it’s all about,’” he says. “I thought, ‘This is what it feels like when the planets align and the thing that you have believed in for so many years really works.’”

Tanked up out on Elm Street, looking for a ride
Stretched out on concrete, running out of pride
– from “St. Ignatius”

Marquita Court Apartments near Greenville Avenue might as well be on a different planet from a big-budget movie studio, although it would be an essential setting for an Old 97’s biopic. The beat-up brownstone building that Miller likens to “living in squalor” is where in 1992 he and Hammond first heard the accordion and guitar sounds of Bethea, who lived in the building too.

Miller and Hammond had been friends and collaborators for a few years at that point and had tried out several different musical styles in various bands, including a rock-flavored effort of Miller’s, brilliantly named Rhett’s Exploding. But after hearing Bethea lay some country licks over “St. Ignatius,” a song Miller had recently written, the three felt as if they had found something stable, a musical home in which to get comfortable.

Soon, Peeples, whom Bethea had met while living in Denton a couple years earlier, joined the trio, and in March 1993, the foursome with a punk-inflected twang began playing gigs in tiny clubs, including Chumley’s in Deep Ellum. Local folk-singer Lisa Loeb, who would rocket to stardom a year later on the strength of her catchy single “Stay (I Missed You),” occasionally played Chumley’s on the same night as the band. In 1994, Big Iron Records released the group’s debut LP, Hitchhike to Rhome, including “St. Ignatius.”

We've been doing this longer than you've been alive
Propelled by some mysterious drive
And they still let me do it as weird as that seems
And I do it most nights and then again in my dreams
– from “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”

The Old 97’s will mark its 30th anniversary with a run of four concerts in Deep Ellum during the first week of February. And this isn’t your average 30th birthday. There have been no lengthy gaps in productivity, no extended hiatus, no break-up and reunion and, perhaps most remarkably, no turnover in the band’s membership.
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The band plays in 1993 at Logan’s BBQ.
courtesy Ken Bethea
The four guys who hit Deep Ellum together shortly after Bill Clinton was inaugurated as the 42nd president are the same ones who will celebrate at the corner of Canton and Crowdus in 2023.

“It’s wild, it’s crazy,” Hammond says. “You roll back 30 years from 1992 and you have 1962. That’s before the Beatles started putting out records. Before Revolver, way before Sgt. Pepper’s. For me, the band has just been this ever-present thing. We’re always writing songs, we’re always playing gigs and we’re always thinking about the next thing.”

While Bethea and Peeples have remained in Dallas, both Miller and Hammond have called a different coast home for much of the band’s run. Miller’s time in New York and Hammond’s years in California have perhaps aided, at least a little bit, the band’s prosperous continuity, but it really comes down to the fact that the guys all really like one another.

“Well, to quote a song off our most recent album, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder, that’s why I wander,’” Miller casually sings into a video call. “But I think a lot of things have allowed us to stay together for so long when other bands don’t. I think the fact that the rest of the band has been supportive of me making solo albums, so I don’t just end up resenting them for the songs they don’t want for the Old 97’s, is a big reason.”

Let's say you're in Chicago and you're breaking up all over the El
You were so in love but you were only in love with yourself
– from “The El”

The support Miller mentions for his excellent string of solo records is there, but that didn’t come immediately. In a tale almost as old as rock ’n’ roll itself, Miller’s maiden voyage into solo waters as a member of the band is the only time Bethea says he was nervous the band might not continue.

Miller’s 2002 LP The Instigator surprised Bethea by being a full-band record featuring non-97’s musicians as opposed to an acoustic collection with only Miller and his guitar. A few years earlier, Bethea says Hammond had predicted Miller would make a record by himself, but Bethea and Peeples admit they were still not in favor of it when it finally began to happen.

They had built some momentum as a band thanks to a trio of well-received major label albums on Elektra Records. They were touring all over the country, making the rounds on late-night network talk shows, getting write-ups in national magazines and hearing their songs on movie soundtracks and having them placed on television shows. And now, there was a fear it would suddenly stop so that the singer could become a star on his own.

But that was then. Over coffee not too far from those Marquita Courts apartments, the guitar player and the drummer each recall their reservations surrounding “Rhett Miller, solo star” while acknowledging that Miller’s solo pursuits have actually been yet another helpful aspect in making them a long-lasting entity.

“I wasn’t surprised by Rhett making a solo record,” Bethea says. “But I was against it, and I talked to him about it on our bus one night. I said that it never works out for the lead singer when he goes solo, and he didn’t understand why I was saying those things to him.” He adds with a chuckle, “I was harshing his mellow.”
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Rhett rocks a Bad Livers T-shirt at an Old 97's performance in 1997 at Excene Cervenka’s store in L.A.
Tom DeSavia/courtesy Ken Bethea
Peeples adds, somewhat incredulously now, “I even had a conversation with Rhett’s mom about it! The way I saw it was that the Old 97’s were sort of this thing where 2 plus 2 equals 16. It just works, even though there’s no logic to it.”

One night, now more than 20 years ago, Miller went to a diner alone so he could write during a tour stop in Chicago. He says it had been a stressful day with his mates because of the planning for the solo album. Over his dinner-for-one, he wrote “The El,” a rollicking tune that would’ve fit nicely onto a 97’s album, although it ended up on The Instigator. Along with the new song, the solitary night soon yielded a valuable revelation.

“‘The El’ is ostensibly a romantic song,” Miller says. “But I realized not too long after having written it that it might be about our band. You know, you’re in Chicago and ‘breaking up all over the El,’ and I had this question of 'what happens if I lose all this?’ I knew that I didn’t want to lose it.”

In time the confusion and uncertainty subsided, and Miller has continued to flex his songwriting muscle over the course of several solo albums. He records songs that don’t fit onto 97’s albums, and as a result, Bethea says, the band’s presence is ultimately still felt even if they aren’t touring as a unit. It all goes to keeping the band active in the studio and out on the road.

“So, I’m glad they stuck with me through the growing pains of having a dual career,” Miller says.

I got a check for nothing
All made out to someone
I truly love myself
Murry says we're going to take the money sometime
Well it might as well be this time
We're going to spend it all on ourselves
– from “The One”
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The bandmates spiffed up in tuxedos at Ken Bethea's wedding in 1998.
courtesy Ken Bethea
Any relationship that’s lasted three decades has endured its share of near misses. Miller’s solo career may have injected some doubt into the band for a short while, but the band has surged past the kind of roadblocks that have completely derailed plenty of other bands. The Old 97’s have stuck together so well, they would likely make for an uneventful episode of VH1’s Behind the Music.

After a three-album run with Elektra, the label dropped them in 2001. Not long after that, the music industry began to implode, thanks to the advent of illegal mp3 streaming on sites such as Napster. At that point, artists who did snag record deals were seeing barely a fraction of the money they would have earned just a few years earlier.

The 97’s members were also getting older, which rarely seems to help anyone in music. Even young is old when it comes to record labels wanting to invest in something they think will sell. And they had each started families, which brought about a whole new set of priorities and schedule demands that didn't always meet in harmony.

In 2020, Miller attracted some headlines when he declared he had stopped drinking alcohol, but even that announcement was less than dramatic, as admirable as it was, as he had been sober for a few years at that point.

In hindsight, the truly hard parts of staying close as a band had come and gone when the band marked its first decade together.

“I think making it 10 years was harder than making it to 30,” Peeples says. “So many bands don’t make it past 10 because they had some idea of how things were supposed to go or how much money they were supposed to make. We hit 10 years and just kept going.”

Oh and if you try
If you don't let a living thing die
It might wind up
Better than brand new
– from “Belmont Hotel”

The Old 97’s are often cited as one of the forerunners of the '90s alt-country craze that saw bands including Wilco, Son Volt and Whiskeytown spring forth. Their sound was one that benefited from the diverse perspectives of each individual. They weren’t trying to sound like a renegade cowpunk group as much as they simply played their own songs, their own way. They sounded how they sounded.

With a developed style that was geared more toward the roots music world rather than the radio rock realm, the Old 97’s were able to set themselves up for the kind of longevity they may not have anticipated in 1993. Theirs is a sound that has grown wiser along with the band's fans, year by year.
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The Old 97's in a publicity photo taken in Oak Cliff in 1994.
Joan Sheahan/courtesy Ken Bethea
“This was all accidental, but one of the nice things about the Old 97’s is that when Murry and I turned our back on so-called ‘proper’ rock ‘n’ roll to go more towards a rootsy, folksy thing, is that it’s been scalable,” Miller says. “It wasn’t calculated this way, but we’re great at [former Dallas club] Naomi’s and we’re great at the Fillmore. It’s also the kind of thing where it’s scalable in terms of youth and insanity. Even though I don’t drink anymore, we still have nights where I jump around a bunch and nights we’re more subdued, but we still rock.”

Peeples adds to the notion that the band’s success might be due to many factors, but an overabundance of strategizing isn't among them.

“I’ve only ever wanted to play the drums,” he says. “No matter what I was doing in life, even when I was a kid, I would only do something else if I could also play drums. For me, the band is sort of like that in that I started playing drums with them and I just haven’t stopped.”

Bethea still conveys a giddy excitement about having been able to make a career out of his love for music. He’s self-assured in just how good his band is, but he can’t hide that he knows he’s one of the fortunate ones.

“I love being in this band, and I have never once wanted it to go away,” he says. “Once I hit that corner and was staring at turning 50, I was like, baby, there’s nothing else I’m going to do. I could go on stage and play with Bruce Springsteen and it would be super fun, but it wouldn't be in the top 100 musical moments in my life because being on stage with the 97’s and playing the songs we write is just so badass.”

“Hey, it’s worked out for me,” Peeples adds with a laugh. “I got free banana pudding at Intrinsic [Smokehouse and Brewery] the other day.”
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The Old 97's are happy to have made it this long as an active band.
Alysse Gafkjen
Thirty years is a long time for a band to stay intact and active, no matter how easy the Old 97’s have made it look. Each new album gets glowing reviews, and the band’s cross-country tour stops are as crowded as ever. The way in which they have made the years glide by is the very reason it’s not hard to imagine more decades passing under their tour bus tires before it all comes to an end. Besides, they have studio time booked to make their 13th album soon.

“I love being in the Old 97’s more than anything else in life, outside of my family,” Miller says. “There’s nothing that will keep us from going until it’s just not physically possible anymore.”
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