UM, OH, GOSH, IT’S JUST … I don’t know.” That’s how Rhett Miller, the enthusiastic, gentle-voiced 26-year-old who fronts Dallas’ Old 97’s, defines “alternative country.” Bands who wed honky-tonk tradition to rock and roll attitude are the current vogue, and the Old 97’s may be the best of the “y’alternative” genre. Their third record, Too Far to Care, is about to be released by a major label, Elektra Records, and they’ve just completed a nationwide tour under the aegis of No Depression magazine, the scene’s bible. Miller is understandably wary of being pigeonholed, but you’d think he’d have a standard soundbite worked up. “I just don’t think of us as country,” he finally ventures. “There’s as much British Invasion as George Jones in everything we do.”
Indeed. On both 1995’s Wreck Your Life and the new record, the Old 97’s show themselves to be far more than a punky, twangy band of roots rockers. Miller’s songs are accomplished, catchy, and surprisingly winsome, with pointed, glibly clever lyrics. On “Barrier Reef” he sings, “My name’s Stuart Ransom Miller / I’m a serial lady killer / She said, ‘I’m already dead.’”
A seventh-generation Texan, Rhett is actually Stuart Ransom Miller II; his Gone With the Wind— obsessed mom chose his nickname. Miller describes his parents as “the first generation not to have money,” mainly because Grandpa—Dallas Texans owner Giles Miller—lost it. He credits his artistic ambitions to the family tension—to keeping up appearances even when they couldn’t keep up their balance sheet. Miller began playing music when he was fifteen and spent the next four years as a “teen folkie” (And how does one become a teen folkie? “You listen to a lot of Kingston Trio and then you play at a peace rally,” Miller jokes). Equally compelling minutiae can be found on the other band résumés: Guitarist Ken Bethea, 34, was a top athlete whose father coached football at Chapel Hill High School in Tyler; bassist Murry Hammond, 32, is writing a history of the Bartlett-Western Railway; and drummer Philip Peeples, 30, owns Big D Bicycles, a custom mountain-bike shop.
The band came together in 1993, after old friends Hammond and Miller finished up a year as members of Dallas bluegrassers Killbilly. On Wreck Your Life, they worked with Austin yodeler Don Walser, and this past February they backed Waylon Jennings on a pair of their own compositions. Don Walser, Waylon Jennings—that’s country, no? Miller may prefer to think otherwise, but even he realizes that one has to live and breathe a music in order to reconstruct and enliven its clichés, as the Old 97’s do with songs like “W-I-F-E” (“I got my wife / the other women / and the whiskey killing me / the first two make it so’s that I see red / the third one makes it so’s that I can’t see”).
“When you grow up in Texas,” Miller offers, “it’s not that you’re passionate about country music, but you have it inside you. It’s the soundtrack to your life. We write songs and we’re from Texas. If you put a Telecaster over that, it’s gonna sound like country.”