The Old 97’s spent the last half of the ’90s giving country music back its swagger, infusing Texas twang with rockabilly spirit and punk rock smarminess on the genre-defining albums Wreck Your Life (1995) and Too Far to Care (1997). The band formed during the dark days of country, when Billy Ray Cyrus and his Hall of Fame mullet ruled the airwaves with “Achy Breaky Heart.” By 1993, the genre had become a musical punch line, a tacky, bloated self-parody of what it once was. Setting out to sound like “Johnny Cash meets the Clash,” the Old 97’s reminded everybody that country music could still be dangerous, it could still surprise and yes, it could still be cool. Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care made it OK for rock ’n’ roll kids to listen to country music again.
But by 2004’s Drag It Up, the band found itself prematurely slipping into the role of the elder statesmen. It was a good album, but also uneven and moody, replacing the rambunctious punch of their early work with melancholy songs of self-reflection in the vein of Elvis Costello’s collaborations with Burt Bacharach or Joe Strummer’s albums with the Mescaleros. Drag It Up was unfairly met with a shrug by longtime fans, and the 2006 release of the greatest hits record Hit by a Train seemed to only confirm fans’ fears that the band’s days as a relevant recording band were coming to an end.
Then producer Salim Nourallah gave the band some advice that made so much sense, it’s a wonder that more bands don’t take it to heart.
“I remember Salim saying, ‘You’re a rock band,’” says Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller. “‘You need to rock.’”
With Nourallah at the helm, the band is back to sounding like the runaway train that inspired their name. On their seventh album, The Grand Theatre Volume 1, Miller and company return to doing what they do best. Nearly all of the tracks were recorded live, creating a rollicking and loose album that stands in contrast to the high production values that sucked some of the energy out of their middle-period albums.
“The biggest thing we wanted to do with this album was capture the sound of us playing live because we exist in our purest state as a live band,” Miller says. “We just wanted to cut everything in a full band setting, which is kind of unheard of these days.”
The result is an album that combines the maturity of their more recent work with the energy of their early releases, liberally drawing on their many influences more cohesively than any of their previous albums. On past records, the band tended to pick a sound and stick with it for the much of the album. Hitchhike to Rhome is their most traditional country rock album, Wreck Your Life is their most punk-influenced, Satellite Rides is their pop album, and so on. But on The Grand Theatre Volume 1, the group pulls all these sounds into one album, and does so without sacrificing the unifying spirit that ties a great album together. “Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)” is a driving, catchy-as-hell power-pop anthem, “A State of Texas” is a pumped-up country rock song that would sound right at home on Too Far To Care, and “Let the Whiskey Take the Reins” is a slow-burning ’60s-rock-via-the-OK- Corral track that would fit nicely on the wider ranging, more experimental Drag it Up. They even borrow the tune to Dylan’s “Desolation Row” on “Champaign, Illinois,” reworking one of the greatest songs of the 20th century with such mystery and wit that even Bob Dylan himself gave it his seal of approval.
The Old 97’s will never make another album like Too Far to Care. That album perfectly combines the attitude of a rock star, the wit of an English major and the vulnerability of country’s most heartbroken crooners. It is a classic album that will sound as new and fresh to our children as it did to us. But as the release of The Grand Theatre Volume 1 shows us, it’s a good thing they won’t make another Too Far to Care. It shows they aren’t content simply being the elder statesmen. They are still striving to build on their legacy.
“Everything we have done has been a departure from the previous record,” Miller says. “We’ve lost fans with every record and we’ve gained fans with every record. I thought early on, I’m not going to care about it or we’ll end up chasing our own tail. I just don’t want to be a band that keeps making the same record over and over.”
On the Bill
Old 97’s with Langhorne Slim play the Boulder Theater on Thursday, Jan. 27. Show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $24.50 in advance, $28 day of show. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.