RS Country look back at Old 97’s classic

A nice little piece up in RS Country this morning about an album which still sounds great twenty (!) years on. You can listen to the whole thing below. “We felt some kinship to the alt-rock scene of the early Nineties, but we wanted to do it on our own terms. We wanted to be able to love Hank Williams and love punk rock.” While this sentiment from Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller isn’t a strange concept today, it was still a relatively underground idea when he and his bandmates unleashed their raw-and-rowdy major label debut Too Far to Care 20 years ago this month ­– and helped birth a whole new subgenre in the process.

Together with guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples, Miller and Hammond mixed the explosiveness of punk rock and the raw sonics of alternative music with heavy doses of classic country swagger. Two albums – 1994’s Hitchhike to Rhome and 1995’s Wreck Your Life – quickly put Old 97’s on the map outside of their native Dallas, Texas, and generated major label buzz.

By Miller’s count, no less than 15 labels courted the band over a six-month period. “They were flying us to New York and Los Angeles and taking us to every major sporting event you could imagine,” he says. “There was so much noise and so much ego inflation. I can see why so many bands get lost when their ship comes in.”

It was a unique moment in time for both the band and also the unruly, amorphous musical scene of which they were a part. “It felt like there was something in the zeitgeist happening with this genre of music that everyone was still trying to find the right name for,” he says of the nascent movement, which aslo included Uncle Tupelo (and its post-breakup offshoots Wilco and Son Volt), Drive-By Truckers and the Ryan Adams-led Whiskeytown.

Questionable terms like “y’alternative,” “honky skronk” “insurgent country” and “cow punk” (a holdover from the Eighties) were being thrown around to describe the sound, with the consensus eventually landing on “alternative country,” often shortened to just “alt-country.”

“It’s like we all had the same education but were on different campuses,” Hammond says of the scene and its like-minded bands. “We’d all gone through punk rock and Sixties garage rock and we all liked Johnny Cash and rediscovered country music around the same time.”

Eventually signing with Elektra Records, Old 97’s decamped for El Paso to record at the famed Sonic Ranch studio (then known as Village Productions). The bucolic setting near the Rio Grande helped inspire what would become Too Far to Care.

“When we finally wound up out in this little desert hacienda surrounded by a pecan orchard, it felt like one of those science-fiction movies where you get squeezed through a time portal,” Miller says. Working with producer Wally Gagel, the band cut some of the most enduring songs of their career and refined their sound along the way.”

Author: Mark Whitfield

Mark Whitfield is the long-suffering editor of Americana UK, conceiving the idea in a dark room in 2001, although he ran out of words to personally review anything in about 2007.

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