"Rock and roll's been very, very good to me," Rhett Miller sings on "Longer Than You've Been Alive," an epic six-minute stream-of-consciousness meditation on his life in music. It's a rare moment of pulling back the curtain, on both the excesses and tedium of the world of a touring musician, and it's the perfect way to open the Old 97's new album, Most Messed Up. "I wrote that song very quickly and didn’t rewrite one word of it," Miller explains. "It's sort of a thesis statement not just for this record, but for my life's work." To say that rock and roll has been good to the Old 97's (guitarist/vocalist Rhett Miller, bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Philip Peeples) would be an understatement. The band emerged from Dallas 20 years ago at the forefront of a musical movement blending rootsy, country-influenced songwriting with punk rock energy and delivery. The New York Times has described their major label debut, Too Far To Care, as "a cornerstone of the 'alternative country' movement…[that] leaned more toward the Clash than the Carter Family." They've released a slew of records since then, garnering praise from NPR and Billboard to SPIN and Rolling Stone. The band performed on television from Letterman to Austin City Limits and had their music appear in countless film and TV soundtracks (they appeared as themselves in the Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston movie The Break Up). Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan told The Hollywood Reporter that he put the band on a continuous loop on his iPod while writing the show's final scene.
The magic in Miller's songwriting lies in the depth that he lends his characters. Upon closer inspection, the hard partying and endless pursuit of a good time often reveals itself to be a band-aid covering up deeper wounds and emotional scars. "There's a lot of darkness hidden in this record," he explains. "One of the big Old 97's tricks is when we write about something kind of dark and depressing, it works best when it's a fun sounding song. So it's not until the third or fourth listen that you realize the narrator of this song is a complete disaster." If that description calls to mind The Replacements, it's no coincidence. Miller is a fan of the Minneapolis cult heroes, and now counts Tommy Stinson among his own friends and fans. Best known as bassist for the Mats and more recently Guns 'n' Roses, Stinson joined the Old 97's in the studio in Austin, Texas, to lay down electric guitar on tracks, elevating the sense of reckless musical abandon to new heights and lending the album an air of the Rolling Stones' double-guitar attack. It's a collaboration Miller never would have even imagined in 1994 when the band released their debut. "We didn’t think we'd last until the year 1997," Miller laughs. "We thought the name would get a little weird when it became 1997, but we decided none of our bands had ever lasted that long, so let's not even worry about it. But as it all started to unfold, we realized we could maybe make a living doing this, and we were all really conscious of wanting to be a career band. It was way more important to us to maintain a really high level of quality, at the expense, perhaps, of having hit singles or fitting in with the trends of the time, and I'm glad we did that." Twenty years on, it's safe to say rock and roll has indeed been very, very good to the Old 97's.
“Before the Drive-By Truckers got in gear, when Ryan Adams was still settling in Whiskeytown, the Bottle Rockets were setting off musical M-80s as perhaps the most underappreciated roots-rock/Americana band of the mid-‘90s.” –Reuters/Hollywood Reporter
When Bottle Rockets hit the scene in the mid ‘90s, the world wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. With their punk-rock pedigrees and arena-rock energy, their tougher-than-Springsteen storytelling and their romantic hearts sewn bare on their denim sleeves, the pride of Festus, MO confounded musical generalities as they laid waste to clubs across the Midwest and then, soon enough, the nation. Back in a time when the critical language and resulting idioms for mixing underground rock with country was in its infancy, the Bottle Rockets were fearlessly – and quite loudly – playing rootsy weepers alongside howling rave ups, with singer/guitarist Brian Henneman leading the charge as some sort of Roger Miller of the indie set. It’s a sound propped up (and hopped up) just as much on the pillars of Leslie West & Mountain as it was on those of the Ramones and the Clash. The band was unceremoniously birthed in 1992 and they very quickly became a forebearer for the new style alongside Uncle Tupelo, Old 97’s, and Whiskeytown. In 1994, The Brooklyn Side came out to a relatively greater amount of significant success, marked both by its stature in the now burgeoning alt-movement and as Bottle Rockets’ most popular effort to date. Following the album release, the band later signed with major label Atlantic Records, toured widely, and reached a national audience with an appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.