MUSIC NEWS
Old 97s grown up, but still trying to keep in rocking
07/15/2010

from Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on pittsburghlive.com

Finally, the Old 97s seem to have actually grown into their name.

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Once, it seemed charmingly off-kilter -- a band of high-spirited young punks from Dallas led by a skinny, nervous live-wire named Rhett Miller -- named after the old-timey country ballad "Wreck of the Old 97." Starting in 1993, they tore through the accumulated underbrush of pop music like a West Texas brushfire, fusing old-school country with punk rock energy and helping kickstart the so-called "alt-country" movement.

Sixteen and a half years later, they're still going, while most of their contemporaries -- and indeed, most of the well-intentioned "alt-country" scene -- has fallen by the wayside. The Old 97s will be rolling through town this weekend, stopping Sunday night at Mr. Small's Theatre in Millvale.

Once, Miller was a high-strung kid singing, "I've got a time bomb in my mind mom/I hear it ticking by I don't know why..." Now, clearly, he has mellowed a bit. Though the band's sound hasn't changed much over the years -- twangy ballads and rabble-rousing barroom rockers -- growing up is kind of inevitable.

"When I was 23-24 and writing for the Old 97s, it was all a microscopic study of myself -- my heartbreak, my drunkenness, whatever. It was all very self-focused," Miller says. "My favorite songs to listen to are songs that sound really personal, and are coming from a place of honest self-assessment. But there's a limit to what people want to hear -- or even what I'm interested in writing about anymore."

In recent years, he noticed that the band's raw, reckless energy had begun to wane.

"On 'Drag it Up' (2004), the Old 97s really hit a point where we were really settling into what felt like a more middle-aged groove," he says. "Something about that just did not feel right to me. There's things about that album that really stand out, but overall there's a sort of quietness that I've been sort of rebelling against ever since. I like to rock. My band is built to rock. When we try to rein it in too much, I feel like it fails on a fundamental level."

So, they went back to their hometown, Dallas, and hammered out "Blame it on Gravity," a return to the winning combination of ragged power-pop and rowdy roadhouse country of "Too Far to Care" (1997).

Now, with the band finishing up a new double-album called "The Grand Theatre," Miller has tried to step outside himself a little bit, with an emphasis on character studies. He notes that "The Grand Theatre" is pronounced "Thee-A-ter."

"I was over in Leeds (England) opening for Steve Earle, and noticed that they have the same pronunciation in England in Texas," Miller says. "I sort of like that overlap -- my musical taste and, consequently, my songwriting has always been this marriage of England and Texas."

(read full story on pittsburghlive.com)





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