By: Ethan Robinson
The Old 97’s newest album, Graveyard Whistling, is a bold continuation of their hollering chorus, 24 years in the making.
Defined as alternative country, the Old 97’s are native to Dallas, Texas, and began their band career in 1993. Exposing them to a more nationwide audience, their music has been featured in several films, notably the song “Timebomb” in 1998’s Clay Pigeons.
Although their popularity has deep roots in the Texan music scene, their songs are drifters themselves, referencing cities like New York to Chicago, where lead songwriter and guitarist Rhett Miller has made a living as both a musician and writer. Driven by an energy akin to rock-and-roll and punk rock, the Old 97’s at their core exemplify the foot-stomping narrative and character of classic American country artists, such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash (whose song “Wreck of the Old 97” inspired their name). With spirited live performances, these qualities have built them a strong connection to their fanbase and have earned them status as one of the quintessential bands of the alternative country genre.
Graveyard Whistling, released this past Feb. 24, is the Old 97’s’ eleventh studio album and was announced in late 2016 with the single “Good With God.” The single features singer Brandi Carlile for one haunting verse, which Miller describes as representing “the voice of God.” For this almost existential anthem, Miller commented on his collaboration with Carlile, “Hollywood for years has lived off of male writers for female parts and most of the time they don’t ring true. Who has a voice that could do justice for being God?”
For Miller, that person was Brandi Carlile, who added immensely to the song’s reflective theme.
“Here I am writing from the perspective of a guy looking back on his life, trying to absolve himself of any culpability and failing [at it],” says Miller.
“There’s a lot of darkness hidden in this record,” Miller 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.”
The main catalyst for the album’s creation was a trip to Nashville where Miller spent time playing with songwriter John McElroy.
Miller said, “It reminded me that I don’t have to be too serious or too sincere or heartfelt. I just have to have fun and be honest. I felt like I kind of had free reign to go ahead and write these songs that were bawdier and more adult-themed.”
Miller’s skill for clever songwriting is evident more than ever, and the unrelenting energy of songs “Turns Out I’m Trouble,” “Drinkin’ Song,” and “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls” embody this idea of an experienced band without a care.
“Jesus Loves You” is a sardonic tune coming from a cynical man pursuing a faithful woman. For this song, Miller has emphasized his role of being a storyteller and not necessarily bearing the views of whatever characters speak. Tied together with the melancholic track “All Who Wander”, Graveyard Whistling is established as a worthy piece of songwriting art.
The Old 97’s truly have made this a “return to roots” album, since they made a point of returning to the West Texas studio, Sonic Ranch, where they recorded their iconic LP Too Far To Care. The studio is far out of civilization, in an old hacienda on the border-town of Tornillo, surrounded by a giant pecan orchard. This vast expanse and distinctly Western atmosphere has undoubtedly influenced Graveyard Whistling’s desolate twang.
For being so long-standing, Miller is somewhat surprised himself as he describes their progression as a band, “We didn’t think we’d last until the year 1997. 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.”
On March 18, the Old 97’s kicked off the Western leg of their tour in Greeley, Colorado, at the Moxi Theater. As always, they gave all that they had. Miller muses and wails, lead guitarist Ken Bethea leans into the crowd, and bassist Murry Hammond grins and speaks about hometowns, ex-lovers, and grain elevators.
As the band wails, “All who wander are not lost… Remember back when you got lost with me,” the audience is ecstatic, because they know that they’ll be getting lost in the Old 97’s for years to come.