It was a sound that crept into the indie community with little warning, a brand of music rooted in country inspiration and, to a degree, tradition. But it was louder and brasher, the product of musical minds that owed as much to post-punk pop as it did anything getting cooked up in Nashville.
The sound was branded as alt-country, a forbear to what is marketed today as Americana, and at the helm was the Old 97’s, a herd of young Dallas artists making merry noise. Two decades on, the band has established itself as a broader-based rock troupe that is less reliant on its upstart country past. The same four guys — vocalist/guitarist Rhett Miller, bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples — tour religiously, having assembled a catalog of 11 impressively consistent studio albums. They return this weekend to Central Kentucky, which helped introduce them, to headline Friday at Somerset’s Master Musicians Festival.
“We imagined during those years that we were like a little army, rolling around the country, conquering town after town,” Miller said. “Lexington was always a fun town to roll through. Some towns presented a harder battle. But the thing about it was there was no opposing army. There were just other bands that we were friends with. We still remember them and talk about them all the time. That was a fun time, those formative years. I think everybody goes back to the years between 17 and 30, to the halcyon days of their youth.
“For us, we were lucky because we were able to have a lot of success, but it wasn’t the kind of overwhelming success that pushes you into another place where you’re really saddled with a whole host of new problems. But it was enough success to where we were able to keep doing it and make a living at it. At first, it was a pretty meager living. At this point, we’re able to lead decent lives.”
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When a much younger Old 97’s were semi-regulars of the defunct Lynagh’s Music Club, the band was already at a career crossroads, transitioning from the famed Chicago indie label Bloodshot, which has just released the robust “Wreck Your Life,” to the major pop imprint of Elektra, and sessions for what would become 1997’s “Too Far to Care.” Curiously, the band’s newest album, “Graveyard Whistling,” returned the Old 97’s to the same border-town studio in Tornillo, Texas, where “Too Far to Care” was cut.
“It’s a weird place,” Miller said. “It’s right on the Mexican border and feels so desolate. It’s bound by desert on all sides and has a kind on Old West feel that’s really fun and magical. The last two records before this were cut in Austin, which is a bustling town. There were lots of people and lots of distractions, even though we were kind of up in the hills in a treehouse of a studio. In Austin, you definitely feel like you’re in the epicenter of something. But with the new album, we never left the studio. We were there the whole time. We just hunkered down, thought about the songs and bonded with each other. We brought out BB guns and would shoot cans hanging from a tree and just relaxed a lot, looked at the stars. It was a great way to make a record.”
I think we all see that if we hang in there and find a way to make it work and survive every little rough patch, we can keep doing this for as long as we want.
Rhett Miller, Old 97’s
Of course, what is perhaps the most arresting aspect of the Old 97’s saga as the band edges close to its 25th anniversary is that its lineup has never changed. Miller said such solidarity can be explained because he and Hammond did all the personnel juggling they needed before the band got on its collective feet.
“Murry and I had several bands before the Old 97’s, but we kind of realized that having one guy in the band that doesn’t fit will inevitably ruin everything. It took a handful of years to really figure that out. Once we did, we found a couple of guys that clicked. Ken came along first and introduced us to Philip. Those two guys, somehow, just fit in perfectly.
“It’s not like we’re all exactly the same, by any means. We’re all very different people, but we have a common understanding. We speak a common language, we care about each other and we respect each other. I think we all see that if we hang in there and find a way to make it work and survive every little rough patch, we can keep doing this for as long as we want. We’ll be a quarter-century in, come the spring of next year. So this point, it’s probably going to take a lot shake up the Old 97’s.”
If you go
Master Musicians Festival
When: July 7 and 8
Where: Festival Field of Somerset Community College, 808 Monticello St. in Somerset
Tickets: $25 (July 7), $45 (July 8), $65 (weekend pass)
Call: 1-888-810- 2063
Frontier (4:15 p.m.)
Roanoke (5:30 p.m.)
The Wooks (7 p.m.)
Colter Wall (8:30 p.m.)
Old 97’s (10 p.m.)
Burn Hislope (11 a.m.)
The Local Honeys (12:30 p.m.)
The Rooster’s Crow (2 p.m.)
Roots of a Rebellion (3:30 p.m.)
Edsel Blevins Tribute (4:30 p.m.)
Shannon McNally (5:15 p.m.)
Parker Millsap (6:45 p.m.)
Dawes (8:15 p.m.)
Blackberry Smoke (10 p.m.)