Old 97’s grew up. Then they got Messed Up
Halfway through our conversation, the phone line goes dead, and Old 97’s bassist Murry Hammond is cut off midsentence while answering a question about the writing process of Most Messed Up, the band’s 10th full-length record in its 21 years. The tour for that album brings the band to The Grey Eagle on Friday, May 30.
When we regain the connection, he picks up right where he left off, to the exact word, even. It’s a total professional move, I remark. “Well, I’ve never been accused of being professional before,” he laughs, his voice dripping with Texas twang. “But thank you.”
Rock ’n’ roll’s governing mythos insists it’s the province of the young. It isn’t built to create professional lifers; it’s designed for those who live fast and, to paraphrase Pete Townshend, hope to die before they get old. It happened to Old 97’s’ second-wave alt-country contemporaries; it happened to The Replacements, a band whose raucous cowpunk is a clear forbearer. (And whose Tommy Stinson guests on Most Messed Up, too.)
But Old 97’s have been around longer — the group formed in 1993 — than some of their fans have been alive. Singer Rhett Miller is 43 years old; Hammond is pushing 50. But when they first started the band, Hammond says, “I knew it was special. I knew it could be something that could just kind of stay around for us. And I was right.”
Just because Old 97’s have gotten older and more entrenched in rock ’n’ roll lifer-dom, doesn’t mean the band’s grown up. Most Messed Up finds the band as wry, rowdy and supremely catchy as it’s even been — bawdier, too (Miller says the F-word 11 times over Most Messed Up’s 12 tracks), and more revelatory of its own excesses. “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” the album’s six-minute, stream-of-consciousness opener, acknowledges the band’s longevity — “We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive / Propelled by some mysterious drive,” Miller deadpans — and proceeds to detail the immoderation and tedium of life on the road. There’s drinking (“Oceans and oceans” of alcohol), drugs (“Mountains of weed / a handful of pills / but none of the hard stuff / that sh*t kills”) and imprudent love affairs, buoyed by the occasional snarky self-damnation and malodorous dressing room.
But rock ’n’ roll hasn’t killed Old 97’s, nor has its trappings. Rather, as Miller succinctly puts it on “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”: “Rock ’n’ roll’s been very, very good to me.”
“A band writing about rocking from town to town, it’s pretty cheesy unless you have a statement that this is all real life and jobs and lifestyles like everyone else has,” Hammond says. “This is our little life. And it’s a little weird at times, but it’s unique. It hasn’t all been great, but at the end of the day, it’s pretty great.”
Although it became one of the most enduring bands in the alternative country-rock catalog, Old 97’s have spent the bulk of their career on the fringes of mainstream success despite sharp, smart songs and a pinup-worthy frontman. The band has issued albums that often drew warm reviews but never yielded a substantial hit. But that lack of mainstream success has allowed the band to explore freely, diving headlong into whatever sound its members choose. It’s all part of that mysterious drive Miller references, even if Hammond can’t fully expound on its nature. “Something about writing the music has just gotten under our skin, and at some point, we just sort of fixated on the relationship between living life and expressing that,” he says.
Most Messed Up finds Old 97’s at their raucous, boozy best, as if the band rolled into the studio, got ripped, hit record, then let ’er rip. The casual insouciance recalls a much younger version of the band, circa 1997’s seminal Too Far to Care, as do many of the songs’ predilection for drinking, partying and puking. Songs like “Wasted,” “Intervention,” “Wheels Off,” “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On,” and “Most Messed Up” hint at the kind of loutish narrators Miller likes to inhabit, but Miller keenly reworks old rock ’n’ roll cliches into winning portraits.
And regrets? They’ve had a few, as introspective burners like “Nashville” and “The Disconnect” affirm. These aren’t heroes or anti-heroes; these are workaday men — some a stand-in for Miller himself — who possess an appetite for indulgence and bad decisions but who you just can’t help but root for anyway.
“He’s always done that,” Hammond says of Miller. “He’s always been kind of a [Paul] Westerberg voice, sort of a lovable messed-up loser. And somehow, maybe he wins in the end.”
It’s hard not to extrapolate that to Old 97’s as a whole. The band always seems to win, always seems to churn out alt-country barn-burners with a significant edge. And, unlike The Replacements, the 97’s didn’t die before getting old. “Maybe,” says Hammond, “we’re just a Replacements-type band that found a way to stay together.”
Old 97’s with Lydia Loveless
The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
Friday, May 30, at 9 p.m. $18