For nearly 16 years the Old 97's have been closing their shows with the rollicking “Timebomb,” which is just as explosive as its title implies. As drummer Phillip Peeples lays down an impossibly fast train beat and guitarist Ken Bethea fires off a desperate riff, frontman Rhett Miller howls about having “a timebomb in my mind, Mom” and being in love with a girl who’s “like a Claymore… she’s waiting ‘round to get blown apart.”
“Timebomb” opened their 1997 album, Too Far to Care, which was not only the Old 97's’ major-label debut but also remains the most popular release of their 20-year career. “Of all our records, that’s the one that probably gets the most play every night,” says Miller. “For a lot of people it was the first record they had by us, and so it holds a special place in the hearts of our fans. So we probably pay a little more attention to that one than we do to some of the later records.”
Too Far to Care was reissued last year via Omnivore Recordings, complete with remastered tracks, demos, live cuts, and alternate takes (it also marked the album’s first appearance on vinyl). What’s remarkable is just how well that album has aged. The Old 97's were one of the best and most influential bands of the alt-country movement, but rather than sounding stuck in a particular moment in the 1990s, these songs retain their urgency, their wit, their exquisite heartbreak. It’s a landmark Texas rock album, albeit an outlier in that state’s rock history: Rather than embracing the redneck-hippie country-rock pioneered by artists like Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, the Old 97s clung to their twerp-punk roots, with Miller (often outfitted in a buzzcut and oversized thick-frame glasses) playing the perpetual loser role, sacrificing dignity for women and alcohol. “Salome,” a Too Far standout, was actually inspired by “me laying on an inflatable mattress outside a girl’s door and realizing that she was actually at home with another boy.”
Miller and Hammond performing an acoustic version of "Timebomb":
For Miller, who has settled in upstate New York with his wife and children, these songs are less timebombs than time machines: “Singing these songs every night is very transportive. It takes me back to 16 or 17 years ago. That album is so specific to that time, being 23 or 24 years old and getting courted by all the major labels. There’s so much of that record where the lyrics meditate on this idea of getting scooped up by this corporation. There’s a lot of wondering about the nature of what you’re giving yourself over to when you try to make a life out of entertaining people.”
The song “Broadway” examines those uncertainties most directly, as Miller describes sitting “in a hotel room that costs as much as my apartment” and awaiting a meeting with representatives from Elektra Records (which eventually signed the band and released Too Far to Care). “It was a different era,” he says. “You could be a band like X, who I loved but existed below the radar a little bit. Or you could be huge. Those were the only two options. Not that I really thought we were destined to be an arena-size band, but it’s just funny that those options barely exist anymore. Probably for the best. The overinflation of an artist tends to kill the fun. It’s supposed to be about the struggle.”
The Old 97's have certainly struggled. When they started out in Dallas in the early 1990s, they felt like misfits too far removed from the much hipper Austin. More crucially, they fell between scenes and styles: “We’d go to Nashville and they’d be like, Ugh why are you guys so punk rock? Then we’d go to a punk club and they’d say, Why the hell are you a country band? We never felt like we fit in.” Following the success of Too Far to Care, they lost fans by adopting a more streamlined, pop-oriented sound. They moved out of Texas and weathered break-up rumors when Miller released a solo record in 2002.
And yet, the Old 97s persevere precisely because they are a band in the truest sense of the word. From Miller’s witty lyrics to Bethea’s surfing-in-Bakersfield riffs, from Peeples’ unparalleled train beats to Murry Hammond's upstanding bass lines, each individual contributes something unique and irreplaceable to the group and helps define its collective sound.
Those are the elements that made Too Far to Care such a barnstormer, and they’re the elements that informed the band’s pair of return-to-form albums, 2010’s The Grand Theatre Vol. 1 and The Grand Theatre Vol. 2. “I think there’s something about sticking to your guns and not trying super hard to play by anyone else’s rules or have a hit song,” says Miller. “All those things can derail a band and make them turn out records that are transparent money grabs.”
Even though Miller hasn’t lived in Dallas since 1998, he still considers the Lone Star State his home. “I’m seventh-generation Texan, and my family’s still there. I talk about it with my kids all the time. If you grow up feeling strongly linked to a place, it’s a part of you. It doesn’t matter where you are or how far you’ve come or how long you’ve been gone, you always carry it around inside you.”
The Old 97's play the Hi-Tone Café on Tuesday, February 19th, with the Travoltas. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Admission is $15.