With over a dozen albums and EPs over the course of 20 years — including a neat little one-off with Waylon Jennings on last year’s Old 97’s & Waylon Jennings — the Old 97’s’ creative streak has always been relentless. 2014 brought Most Messed Up, their highest-charting album ever — No. 30 on Billboard’s Top 200 charts. The way it seems now, the band’s popularity is only going to continue to grow. The band — Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea, Philip Peeples —never expected the Old 97’s to last this long.
“I don’t think any of us thought we’d be going 20-odd years, which is part of why the word ‘old’ makes it seem like [the name of our band] was a terrible marketing move,” Miller laughs. “We never imagined that we would be old and in this band — not that we are old yet, although to my 23-year-old self, I’m sure it would seem that way now — but we’re feeling good.”
It’s no surprise that they feel this way. Messed Up is merely the latest proof that the band defies convention. On the LP, a dozen songs talk about everything from living in the moment (the groovy rocker “Let’s Get Drunk & Get it On”) to rescuing friends in trouble (the gritty, blues-rock number “Intervention”). Fans will also notice that Miller is even loosening his tongue a bit more on this record, dropping some colorful words into the musical conversation, something he hadn’t done much of on previous releases.
“I did a co-write in Nashville with Jon McElroy and he told me, ‘I think your audience would appreciate it if you went out there, walked up to the microphone, and said, ‘Fuck.’ So we wrote a song together that had a few F-bombs in it called ‘Nashville.’ I’ve always tried to be straight-laced and do the right thing, but once the floodgates were opened, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is the right thing right now,'” he says.
This ability to approach each song naturally, knowing it can and should be whatever it wants to be instead of trying to make it into a hit, is one of the group’s calling cards, a fact that’s always evident on the album. It makes no apologies about being a record about the ups and downs of life as a touring musician, featuring tales about wondering if you’ve made the wrong career choice, making time for a woman, and living to excess. For Miller, never hitting the bigtime may have been the best thing to happen to them. Now the band can go at their own speed with as much creativity as they please.
“I don’t know what would have happened to us if we would’ve had a hit, but I think it was definitely to our benefit that we never did,” Miller says. “That made it possible for us to keep going on the sort of slow, upward trajectory we’ve been on for 21 years. And also, for me as a songwriter, it keeps me hungry, because I know I’ve got to do this well.”
Miller, like any long-time music vet, sees how it has changed for the better. Bands don’t need the same kind of label support they once had in order to be successful, and it also helps that people seem to care about the music more than before. Miller loves going against the grain, and the fact that the music industry is doing more of this nowadays is an encouragement to him. It also provides him with a sense of validation.
“Doing the thing that seemed unpopular when Murry and I decided to start the band, it was like, ‘Well let’s do a band that has no chance of success,'” he says. “And that is, in itself, its own success.”