It’s early Tuesday evening and Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond are sitting in the employee break room of a Dallas Borders bookstore. Tonight, the space has been converted into a backstage “green room” as the Old 97’s members prepare to play at a packed in-store performance. The day has two special meanings to Miller and Hammond—both are Dallas natives that have returned to their hometown and their band’s latest album, The Grand Theatre Volume One (New West Records), is being released today. These days, Miller resides in New York’s Hudson Valley while Hammond calls Southern California home. Their fellow band mates, Ken Bethea and Philip Peeples, still live in Dallas and the city is still considered the Old 97’s home base. I ask Miller how he feels on the day of an album release.
“It’s nerve-wrecking leading up to it, but then the day comes and it’s kind of anti-climactic outside of waking up at 5:15 to go on TV and stuff like that,” he offers. “I always get depressed on my birthday, so it’s that kind of thing like, ‘I was looking forward to this day and now it’s here—so what?” With Volume One prominent in the new album title, one logically assumes that a follow-up release is imminent. However, I am surprised to learn just how quickly the next edition will hit the streets.
“We go to Austin on Sunday and we do another week of finishing and polishing up Volume Two and then that’ll come out in May,” Miller says. “We’re 80% done on Volume Two and we’ve cherry-picked some songs to put on Amazon and iTunes as bonus tracks. To be able to put two records out in an eight-month window feels very cool.”
Once envisioned to be a double-album, The Grand Theatre recording sessions found the band entering the studio with a wealth of songs. Produced by Salim Nourallah—the producer of the band’s previous release, Blame It On Gravity offers 12 tracks including “Champaign, Illinois,” a re-write of Bob Dylan’s song “Desolation Row,” with new lyrics penned by Miller. Overall, Miller says the album’s body of material came to the band in relatively short order.
“Murry’s songs are different—I can never really speak to how old his songs are,” Miller says. “He’ll come in with one I think is brand new and he’ll say, ‘I’ve been working on it for 10 years.’ I don’t work like that. I tend to work very quickly, so all the songs are new except for ‘Champaign, Illinois,’ a re-write of a Bob Dylan song which I was always afraid to use because of legal repercussions. I finally got him to sign off on it and he was very gracious about it and let us keep half of the publishing. He said he really liked the song and he really liked the lyrics, which was obviously a huge honor. But every other song was brand new.”
With both Miller and Hammond—the band’s primary songwriters—maintaining solo careers outside of their primary band, how does each determine what is a solo song and what is an Old 97’s song?
“Rhett’s the only one with a real career— mine’s a little hobby that I do,” Hammond says with a laugh. “Rhett did an interview recently where he said he gives the band the first right of refusal. If we don’t connect on it well, then it goes into another pile. It doesn’t mean it’s less of a song.”
Having been together for 17 years, the Old 97’s members have witnessed numerous changes in the music business, most notably the heightened impact of technology. Unlike in the band’s early days, the current business model now includes Youtube, iTunes, satellite radio and the ability for artists to create music and distribute it on their own.
“It’s a good thing and it’s what we all have wanted our whole lives,” Hammond says. Miller agrees, adding, “We prefer this model to a bunch of men in a boardroom saying, "So-and-so is going to be famous next’ and they only put out so many records. We’re lucky in that we had a bunch of years in the old model—a bunch of years of Elektra Records really working to get us known, so we had a head start on a lot of the young bands. I’d hate to be starting out right now. It’s cool because the ease of accessibility is amazing, but it’s very crowded and there’s a lot of noise—it’s hard to cut through.”
With a catalog of more than 100 original songs, I ask Miller and Hammond how older songs remain fresh and relevant to the band to this day.
“I feel a certain amount of gratitude for these songs and I love that people connect with them and it’s a great feeling,” says Miller.
“It helps that everything is very much a family sound,” Hammond explains. “There’s nothing that doesn’t fit next door to each other, so we play everything we’ve ever played. I really like listening to this music and I get to hear it in the best place possible, which is the live setting.”
So after nearly 20 years in existence and with its members literally spread across the country, how does the quartet still continue to make it work?
“Over seven years, Murry and I want through different lineups,” Miller recalls. “It’s hard to find a good group. Ken’s a good mix of having it together and also being kind of crazy.” Hammond adds, “I’m very proud of it. We’re basically reasonable people, so we have similar values and we all love this band. We know what we have and it’s who we are now.”
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.