The music of the Old 97's is a time machine, transporting you back to the '70s when radio was worth listening to. Tunes that came at you over the airwaves had a similar heritage, but enough diversity for you to want to keep listening. The 97's have kept that basic concept, but improved the model. When these guys broadcast, you don't have to change stations to get diversity. As the band's latest, Blame It On Gravity, demonstrates, it's all right there in one place.
Frontman Rhett Miller sounds like a punkier version of Tom Petty. But that's just the jumping-off place. The strength of the 97's has always been making sure that country roots remain entwined with the spiky weeds of punk and new wave that poked their unruly heads above ground.
So, on Gravity, you get a garden variety that includes a garage samba on "Dance With Me." Freddy Fender goes Hawaiian on "She Loves The Sunset." Bo Diddley meets Johnny Cash on "Early Morning." Jonathan Richman weighs in on "I Will Remain," and "The Easy Way" sounds like a country-flavored version of the Count Five's garage classic, "Psychotic Reaction."
The record is being hailed as a back-to-their-roots revival, but not everybody agrees with that assessment. "We always sound like that," says bassist Murry Hammond by phone from his California home. He credits longtime friend and producer Salim Nourallah, who also plays guitar and keys on the record, with capturing the sound of the band's earlier recordings. "The records we did on Elektra were the ones that people seemed to think have everything in there," Hammond says. "The tough sound, the pop sound, but also the real rootsy, raw sort of thing."
The band was a pioneer of a sound whose label has fallen out of favor, but Hammond believes it still applies. "Alt-country sounds fine to me," the bassist says. "When you talk about roots music, you're talking about a pretty big umbrella. I think the term alt-country won the contest of what to call bands like us."
You can also call them dedicated. The original lineup has remained intact for 15 years. "Always, at the end of the day, no matter what kinds of disagreements that have gone on, we've agreed more than we've disagreed," Hammond says. "We've always felt the band to be more important than our own interests."
That solidarity theory was put to the test when Miller put out a solo album, '02's The Instigator. "Our record deal (with Elektra) was basically taken away from the band and given to him. That was a little challenging," Hammond says, laughing. "Our challenge was just getting him to stop the promotion of doing the solo record and get on with the business of doing the Old 97's."
Miller had put together a touring band called the Instigators to tour behind the record. "I've got a solo thing, too, but it goes on at same time of the band," Hammond explains. "When Rhett does a solo thing, the band has to stop and you don't want to be unemployed and there's sort of an unbroken river of inspiration and it gets broken."
With Gravity, on the band's new label New West, the river is flowing again. That's good news for those who thought the band had tried to go mainstream on earlier records. "Well," Hammond says with a sigh, "those people overestimated our ability to sound mainstream. What we sound like is all we know how to sound like."
Hammond admits Miller is able to sound mainstream when he works with studio musicians on his own projects, but when it comes to the 97's, the members' input combines into a family sound. "The day this band tries to update its sound, and it's never gonna happen, but I'll quit that day," Hammond says.
To help ensure the family stays together, the band splits all the songwriting royalties equally. "We know that good marriages can get strained from financial disagreements," Hammond says. "You're trading that for something that's priceless, and that's peace and happiness."
The Old 97's make an in-store appearance at 6 p.m on July 25 at Manifest Discs, 6239 South Blvd. and later appear at The Visulite at 9 pm. Tickets are $20.