Old 97’s: Turn on the TV (Part 1 of 2)
With their winning combination of rock energy and Texas twang, Dallas-based Old 97’s have carved out a unique place for themselves on the music landscape. Across a dozen albums, their evocative songwriting and high energy musical approach has won the group both critical acclaim and a dedicated following. But the band hasn’t quite reached the commercial success that critics and ardent fans alike agree are so richly deserved.
Part of the problem might be that Old 97’s don’t fit neatly into one stylistic category. So it’s something of a challenge for their label to promote them. Are they country? Alt-country, or power pop? Rock? Something else? Lead guitarist Ken Bethea acknowledges that there’s no neat, one-word label that offers a shorthand description for what Old 97’s does.
Let’s address power pop. To some, the term refers to the rock subgenre exemplified by bands like Badfinger, The Raspberries, The Knack…groups that made uptempo, Beatles-influenced rock with sharp hooks and concise melodies. But it’s that word pop that rankles Bethea.
“To me,” he explains, “pop is a kind of music where there’s a producer and a separate songwriter. They write a song, and the singer or band comes in and sings it. And that doesn’t even begin to describe us.” By that understanding of the term, he’s right. From the very start, Old 97’s have charted their own path, written their own songs and played their own instruments.
Bethea acknowledges that other labels like Americana or even “loud folk” have at least some connection to the Old 97’s aesthetic. “But,” he insists, “there really isn’t another band like us.” Once again, he’s right. The idea of combining country textures with a rock approach has been done since the earliest days of rock ‘n’ roll: witness Elvis, early Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. But Old 97’s doesn’t sound much like them.
Later generations of rockers like Eagles developed their own hybrids of rock and c&w. But no one would ever mistake Old 97’s for the slick Californians who gave us “Heartache Tonight” or “Disco Strangler.”
Asked about artists whose work has had an impact on the sound of his band, Bethea names some of the greats. While many Old 97’s songs are group-composed and arranged, singer-guitarist Rhett Miller is the band’s primary songwriter. And Bethea describes a central component of the band’s signature sound as the product of Miller’s creativity, informed by an appreciation for David Bowie, Lennon and McCartney and Elvis Costello. Those musical touchstones offer a connection to what the band is all about.
“I don’t even listen to country,” Bethea admits with a laugh. But in the same breath, he confesses that he very much likes playing it. “Even from the very beginning before I met Rhett and Murry [Hammond, bassist], I liked playing country music on my guitar. It was fun bending those notes.” A few moments into the discussion, he hits upon a way of describing Old 97’s that suits him. “It’s modern music, played in the style of old-fashioned music,” he suggests. “That’s what we’ve always been.”
Timeless music might be an even better way of describing it. Miller’s wry lyrics and the irresistible guitar licks make a song like “Murder (Or a Heart Attack)” from the band’s fourth album, 1999’s Too Far to Care, a stone classic. Call it what you will, but it’s great stuff, the kind of music that makes listeners want to throw away all the labels and just appreciate the music for its greatness.
Each time Old 97’s release an album – 2020’s Twelfth is their latest one, by the way – the record is greeted by critical praise. And their latest single, “Turn off the TV,” rose to the #22 spot on Billboard’s Adult Alternative singles chart. But nearly a quarter century into its existence, the group still somehow flies under the radar of many who (by most measures) should appreciate their music.
The likely reason for that brings us back to that nagging what-is-their-sound question. Not fitting neatly into an existing category makes it difficult when it comes to things like marketing. “It makes it nearly impossible,” Bethea says with a good-natured (if resigned) chuckle.
“But on the good side,” he hastens to add, “when your [sound] is super-specific, you ‘scratch the itch’ for a segment of the population.” And while there may not be a massive contingent of Old 97’s fans, many of those who know them, love them.