Fifteen years ago this month, the Old 97's released their major label debut, Too Far to Care. Last week, frontman Rhett Miller released his latest solo record, The Dreamer. Darryl Smyers and Eric Grubbs sat down and talked about the legacy of Too Far to Care, and whether or not it's a bigger deal than anything Miller has done as a solo artist. Whether or not you agree with these codgers, Rhett Miller plays a free show at Good Records tonight at 6 p.m.
Eric Grubbs: Audra asked me about what would people care more about, that it's been 15 years since Too Far to Care came out or Rhett's new solo record. I think the legacy of Too Far to Care is bigger than any solo record that he's put out. Your thoughts, hater? Darryl Smyers: I'm not the hater! I've known both Rhett and Murry [Hammond] too long, Murry about five to ten years longer than Rhett. It depends how good this solo record will be. If it follows in the footsteps of The Instigator and The Believer, then no one will care. If it goes back to some of the things he's been writing for the last few Old 97's records, then people have seemed to embrace that, even after Too Far to Care, the band distanced themselves from the kind of alt-country they're magically back playing these days.
EG: Since you know the guys and have seen them many times over the years, what was the response around here when the band signed to Elektra? DS: When the record came out, it was overwhelming. Even for me, because I heard Hitchhike to Rhome, their first album that was independently released, when Murry played the tape for me of what was going to be the finished tracks, I thought he was joking. I said, "That's it?" It lacked a lot of the power I had seen them display live. When Hitchhike to Rhome came out, I thought it was a very flat-sounding record and I didn't really like some of the songwriting on that one, although there are a lot of people who love that record. But Too Far to Care, the production values were so stepped up.
My first time hearing any of the songs was Clay Pigeons with Janeane Garofalo and Joaquin Phoenix. The opening credits feature "Timebomb." I got goosebumps because that song was so good. Rhett's songwriting was the best I think it ever was. And there are some little hidden tracks like "House That Used to Be," which is one of my favorite Old 97's songs. They were already pushing the whole alt-country thing, but it was like alt-country meets Brian Eno because all the instrumentation was in the same spot, like what Eno likes to do with his production with U2. I always told them, "That's a great song." I was really expecting them to kind of expand on that, almost ambient alt-country, which I think is a brave move as opposed to just listening to the idiots at Elektra who said, "Ohhhhh, you guys are a big alt-country band and now we can make you a big alt-country/pop band."
And then the band embraced that and then it got ridiculous. People were hassling Rhett when he decided to not wear his glasses anymore and just wear contacts. That was supposedly a part of his "sell-out." With Too Far, I remember the Observer went crazy. And that was even before I was freelancing. All the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Had to be one of the biggest bands in Dallas.
EG: I remember reading about the band in Guitar World, of all places, in a story about the reality of the post-Alternative Nation signing binge. Being a suburban Houston kid, I saw them kick off Buzzfest with "Streets of Where I'm From." It was too country for my tastes. Maybe that's why I like Fight Songs. That's not to say I'm an idiot; I can handle country music to an extent before it gets annoying. I mean, the country twang is still a little prevalent on Fight Songs. DS: Too Far to Care was such a whole different thing than what they had done. Wreck Your Life is a good record on Bloodshot, but on Bloodshot, they had to fit the stereotype, which is very hardcore. Like I said, I just loved the production on Too Far. It was produced by the same guy who produced the last Replacements album, Matt Wallace. From song to song, I think it's their best one. I think some of it is the least country. You start out with "Timebomb," "Barrier Reef," "Salome," one of Murry's best songs, "W. TX Teardrops," and then "Melt Show," which is a searing rock song. And then "House That Used to Be" and "Four Leaf Clover" with Exene from X. That's what they ended their sets with. Hell, they still might end their sets with that.
And that's one of the things that kind of drove me away initially. Since I knew Murry so well, went to high school with him, I'd go to almost every show. I saw them go from playing to ten people to a hundred to a thousand within a year, within five months before the release and the five months after. But the setlists were always the same. When Rhett and Murry would do the Ranchero Brothers, they would mix it up, but when the Old 97's would play, they'd play the same 15, 20 songs almost every show. Even when I go now, they'll mix in some of the later stuff, but you still got a lot of the same material. I guess that's what they think are their best songs.
EG: When I was in college, the people that were really into Old 97's were in the fraternity/sorority crowd, whereas the people working at the campus radio station, like me, listened to their new records with some trepidation. What distanced you from going to shows? DS: That's true. They did get that SMU crowd and it was weird because it wasn't an alt-country crowd at all. Rhett and Murry had been in several bands together. When they heard Nirvana, they decided to form a band called Rhett's Exploding where they were doing Nirvana-ish grunge music. People heard that band and knew Rhett's folky stuff he had done in coffee shops around town. Murry had been in a punk band called Mindless Thrash, for God's sake. So when the Old 97's popped up, I thought it was the new costume these guys were wearing, especially Rhett. Murry has always been into hardcore country, all his life, but not for Rhett. I knew people who were like, "Oh, it's just a gimmick." And it turned out it really wasn't because the shows were really good.
I don't know what it was about that time because there was that battle with Whiskeytown, which was just bizarre. It ended up with Ryan Adams up on stage at Trees wondering where the "Mold 97's" were. People were booing and chuckling. There's a story that Murry told me on the Too Far to Care tour where they were invited to play Austin City Limits, not as a solo group, but with Whiskeytown. The story goes that Rhett went backstage and Ryan Adams was drinking a bottle of whiskey and Rhett asked him for some and Ryan told him to get the fuck out of the dressing room. Another thing about it: Elektra did a great job. They may have screwed them later on, but on that album, they were on Letterman, Leno. They were everywhere, but then you could still walk the streets of Dallas and say, "Hey, do you know who the Old 97's are?" And people would say, "Who?" It wasn't like the kind of name recognition you had with The Toadies or Edie Brickell, or Pantera. It was different, kinda cool and underground, but then the crowds would be a lot of SMU frat guys. It was such a weird mix. Maybe that's why it was never as successful as the record company or the band wanted. It seemed to come crashing down pretty fast. When did Rhett's first solo album come out? We don't count Mythologies. The real one, The Instigator: 2002? EG: Yeah.
DS: So, the band had been together, by that time, ten years. What did you think, since you came to them much later than I did? What did you think when The Instigator came out on Elektra? EG: It seemed like it came out towards the end of the major labels giving an artist like that a chance. This was when more major labels were consolidating, hoping to go for more of a pop audience. With Rhett's solo stuff, there were lots of comparisons to Ryan Adams' solo stuff, which had somewhat of a pop edge to it. Frankly, after Fight Songs, I haven't really been into Old 97's. I heard Satellite Rides a few times, but it felt a little too poppy. Since then, they've released a few records on New West and they tour. I'm not very inclined to check out their new material. I won't turn down an opportunity to see them live, like when they played the DOMA showcase last year. This is a band that's a good time, but not a band you go home to and study the records.
DS: Yes! I had forgotten Satellite Rides was on Elektra as well because that was such a bad period. I remember the band being upset that Elektra basically said, "We don't want to put out anymore records by you, but we'll put out records by Rhett." What's funny is that there would not be an Old 97's anymore if The Instigator had been successful. I like some songs on Drag It Up, Blame It On Gravity is kinda so-so, but The Grand Theatre records have gotten some of their best reviews since Too Far to Care. It was funny, I got into an argument with Murry when he was playing me the songs for Fight Songs. He said they wanted to go into more of a poppy direction and some of the songs I like a lot and some of the songs I hate. EG: "Oppenheimer"?
DS: "Oppenheimer"! Well, I hate songs that I could write. I'm not a good guitar player; I can barely strum chords and I can do "Oppenheimer." If it sounds like something I could write, then I usually don't like it. Murry was saying they weren't going back to that alt-country. So it's kind of ironic, with The Grand Theatre, they basically came full circle. If you took a person who had never heard Old 97's and played Too Far to Care and The Grand Theatre, they would probably say they were consecutive releases. EG: I'm happy they're still a band, still draw really well, and have been able to make a comfortable living off of it. DS: Yeah, the other guys have done well. Phil plays in several bands around town. Of course, only him and Ken are the only ones who really live in Dallas because Murry's out in L.A. and Rhett's in New York. They're all family people now. People don't realize how much of great a songwriter Murry is. He's always relegated to the two songs per album, but I put his solo record up against anything Rhett's released. Murry knows I used to make fun of the Old 97's in reviews. I never said, "Oh, because I'm friends with Murry Hammond, I'm not going to say the truth about what I think of these records."
EG: Any other questions you want to ask me? DS: Did you notice the decline in the band's fortunes?
EG: Yeah, but I saw that with a lot of bands where the people that signed them originally were gone by the time of their second or third records for the label. It was very common. I'm glad Old 97's found a home on New West, a label that actually cares about who's on their label. The way all major labels were at the time of Fight Songs and Satellite Rides was, "How do we offload all these non-pop acts?" Before that, if you weren't a hair metal band in the early '90s, labels would consider signing you. Bands like Uncle Tupelo opened some doors. I mean, Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age is a huge fan of Too Far to Care. Prior to that, what had Elektra released that had a twang sound serviced to rock radio? DS: Old 97's were a little bit later because bands like The Jayhawks had already started this. Major labels were going crazy trying to snatch up a quaint alt-country band. American Recordings got The Jayhawks. Elektra got Old 97's.
EG: Wilco was on Reprise, Son Volt on Warner Bros. DS: A lot of those same bands share the same fate we're talking about. Ryan Adams and Wilco were some of the only ones that blew out of there into major success. There are still some people that I know where you say "Son Volt" and they won't know what the hell you're talking about. And they for sure don't know who Uncle Tupelo was. See, I like Rhett. It might come out that I don't like Rhett, but when I think of Ryan Adams, Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, Gary Louris or Mark Olson, I don't think Rhett compares to those guys as a songwriter. I just don't think he's as good as those people that we're talking about. He's good. Maybe he has more in common with the guy from The Bottle Rockets, where they share common wordplay and pretty simple melodies. The lyrics for Uncle Tupelo, Ryan Adams and The Jayhawks, some of those lyrics can be devastating. I don't think anything Rhett's done is devastating.
EG: The only stuff I've heard from Rhett I've thought of as dark are "Jagged" and "Lonely Holiday." Pretty heavy stuff, especially with a line like, "I've thought so much about suicide/parts of me have already died." DS: Well, Rhett's kinda cursed because he's the prettiest singer in Dallas. He was back then, male or female. I'm one of these advocates who say the ugliest bands make the best music, like Hüsker Dü, who were butt-ugly. The Replacements, same way. Rhett was kind of cursed and blessed with his really good looks and it got them a lot of attention. Got them into The Break-Up with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, who's also in Clay Pigeons. Bill Paxton's a big fan. They have a lot of famous fans. The only other bands that you see on Leno or Letterman are nationally known.
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It was kind of funny: Murry is my son's godfather. I remember my son was real young when they were on Leno and my son came running in saying, "It's Uncle Murry on TV!" If you look in the Too Far to Care thank-you notes, they put "Sam the Hamster." That's my son. I'm sure Rhett prohibited putting me on another one after I made fun of his solo album. But I couldn't help make fun of the record. Just the covers alone. They're so precious. You hadn't seen anything like that since the Peter Frampton days.
EG: I'm In You? DS: Yeah! You haven't really seen stuff like that kind of glossy portrait in a long time, unless it was like a Neil Diamond record.
EG: It's very country. When I stocked CDs at Best Buy, every country CD had a headshot of the artist in a studio or doing something very country, like standing on a ranch or riding a horse. DS: It's like when we talked about Pantera: Too Far to Care would have to be considered one of the best records to come out of our area.