Old 97’s released their debut album, Hitchhike to Rhome, thirty years ago. Since then, the band’s lives have changed a lot—back in 1994, they were young hell-raisers in their early twenties, tearing up Deep Ellum and rising out of a Dallas scene that included the Reverend Horton Heat, Toadies, and Tripping Daisy, with a country-meets-punk-rock sound so fresh the name for it hadn’t even been coined yet. 

Over the years, those circumstances changed. Their music came to be known as “alt-country,” and the nineties major-label feeding frenzy saw them feted by folks with deep pockets. They signed with Elektra Records, recorded three albums that didn’t make the label much money, then returned to their indie roots. Hell-raising turned to heck-raising as the band members got married, had children, and allowed their three-month tours to transition to two-week jaunts. They learned to collaborate remotely, as front man Rhett Miller moved to upstate New York and began a solo career on the side. But through those changes, the band has stayed remarkably consistent—the longest gap between releases in their catalog is just four years, and they’re on the extremely short list of rock bands who’ve been together for thirty or more years without a single lineup change. 

On Friday, the band’s thirteenth album, American Primitive, will hit stores and streamers. With Miller in a reflective mood, we asked him to go through the band’s thirty-year career and rank each of the albums leading up to American Primitive. Here’s what he told us. 

12) The Grand Theatre Vol. 2 (2011)

“One of our earliest mission statements as a band was that we wanted to amass a large catalog that we were proud of from top to bottom. We didn’t want to have any records where we could look back and say, ‘That was our embarrassing electronica album.’ I feel like we’ve been really true to ourselves. That said, when we did the Grand Theatre albums, it probably should have been one album. When we were making The Grand Theatre, there were a lot of songs that were going to get cut that sounded good, and I said it would be a cool thematic thing to do a second one. There are high points on Volume 2—‘Perfume’ is a really great song, so is ‘Brown Haired Daughter,’ but then there’s stuff like ‘Visiting Hours,’ which didn’t make any of our first however-many albums, because it had been around for our entire career, and it was just kind of an afterthought. There’s more of what feels like filler than I can think of on any other albums except maybe Wreck Your Life.”

11) Drag It Up (2004)

“It’s funny, because this is one that fans do bring up as a favorite, and there are songs on it that we play almost every night. It occupies an awkward position in my own rankings because it was such a tough record to make. The band had given me permission to go make solo records, because I had all these extra songs that they weren’t willing to record, and it was going to be a problem if I wasn’t able to do all the things I wanted to do, and a lot of them didn’t fit into the band. So I went and did The Instigator, which was a big major-label record that got a lot of attention. Thank God that I didn’t have some big dumb radio hit, because that would have been the death knell of the band—but I didn’t make the kind of record that lent itself to a big dumb radio hit. At the time, the sound was like the Jack Johnson–style, laid-back white guy beach record. I could have made a record like that and it would have been an embarrassing moment in an otherwise decent catalog. 

“So the band survived, but the growing pains were hard. Our band is very much a democracy, but when we were making Drag It Up, I stepped back and said, ‘You guys run the show, I’m just happy to be here.’ The producer and I didn’t get along at all. There are good moments on that record. ‘Won’t Be Home’ is a really cool moment, but that was an outtake from Too Far to Care that I kept in my pocket in case we ever needed a song to save a record, and sure enough, that song came along and did that.” 

10) The Grand Theatre Vol. 1 (2010)

“I feel like the things that make any art good, but specifically that make our band good, is when there is a real balance of having fun and also feeling really hungry, like you have something to prove. But the time when this one happened, it was really in the immediate aftermath of the absolute collapse of the recorded music industry that we had really benefited from. Our years on Elektra were so great, and also unlikely—Elektra Records shouldn’t have kept pouring money into this band from Dallas, Texas, that was never going to be Third Eye Blind, which was a pretty stupid band that was making them so much money. Here we were, really trying to make a deep catalog of high-quality, authentic art, and just not making any money. I understand why the business model collapsed—it was dumb, and it deserved to collapse. But it was tough to be in the ship as it was sinking, and we washed up on a desert island with an indie label and the post-recorded-music business model. We didn’t phone it in, but we did do it more as a way to enjoy making music again and not feel pressured. I felt like maybe we could have pushed ourselves more in that era.” 

9) Wreck Your Life (1995)

“Fans maybe would be angry to hear it, but to me, Wreck Your Life is not our strongest moment. I forget who this quote is properly attributed to, but they say you have your whole life to make your debut album, and you have six months to make your sophomore album. And the math on that was really true. When we went in to make Hitchhike to Rhome, we had been playing for a year-plus, four nights a week, and we killed those songs. 

“Then we went into this un-air-conditioned punk rock studio, Attica, in Wicker Park [in Chicago] with the punk rock producer Chuck Uchida to make Wreck Your Life, and we were just going and going. It happened very quickly. It was a handful of new songs, it was cover songs, it was some outtakes from the first album, like ‘Victoria,’ which is really one of the ones that holds up, but that song predates the Old 97’s—I wrote that when [bassist] Murry [Hammond] was in other bands with embarrassing names, and that was sort of the prototype for what became the Old 97’s, as a mid-tempo folky song with a swing beat, a little bit tongue in cheek and snarkiness to it, and maybe some clever one-liners and turns of phrase. That song sounds great on that record, but in general, it’s a little bit to the side, and it sounds a little like nineties lo-fi, shitty indie rock.” 

8) Twelfth (2020)

“It was tricky figuring out what goes where, but I put Twelfth here. I’m not even sure why. I think the experience of that album dropping in the height of the pandemic and being sort of lost in the noise of that time colors my appreciation of it. I know there’s stuff on that record that’s really cool and that I’m proud of, but I also know that there are nights when we don’t play a single song off that record and nobody complains. Twelfth is a record that kind of came and went. I don’t know that it deserved that fate, but that’s what it is.”

7) Graveyard Whistling (2017)

“These were back-to-back records, and I’m not sure why Graveyard Whistling is at number seven, except that I felt like I couldn’t move the top six around as much as I wanted. It featured a song that was sort of a late-career high point on radio. I don’t even know what any of that means anymore, but I felt like the chart positions for ‘Good With God,’ the duet that I wrote and we recorded with Brandi Carlile, was really good and some people really loved it. Which, you know, was helped by Brandi Carlile shooting to megastardom shortly thereafter. I feel like that record to me was so cohesive—it was almost like a concept album, recorded out in the desert outside El Paso. We really leaned into the spaghetti Western sound of Ken’s guitar, and I feel like there are some really great songs on that record—‘I Don’t Wanna Die in This Town’ really holds up and shows up in a lot of our live sets. 

“Part of why I have a mild ambivalence about this album is because of my bringing in so many cowriters and guest vocalists—having Caitlin Rose come in and sing, and Nicole Atkins, and Brandi Carlile—because I had this vision of female vocalists on the album adding a lot to our sound, which is something we had never really done before. But it did create a certain level of strife within our band, because it is a machine with a very specific function, and it’s really hard to make our band do things that don’t go in the wheelhouse of what we’re used to doing. So there were a lot of back-and-forth artistic struggles about creating with the cowriters and guest vocalists. I’m really proud of the way it turned out, but it wasn’t super fun to make.”

6) Most Messed Up (2014)

“I really thought Most Messed Up might be my surprise number one or something, because I feel like it’s such a great album. In some ways it’s a concept album. It came after a few records that I wasn’t super crazy about, and there was this sort of explosion of excitement within our band. We were out on tour and we saw people responding to this record in a way they hadn’t with any of the records in the decade prior. 

“It was a bit of a hard record to make, which is maybe why it clocks in lower than I thought it might when I agonized over this list, because for me personally, it was the last Old 97’s record I made before I got sober. The stuff that sounds like fun on this album, the experience for me of making it wasn’t as fun because I was in the throes of reaching what people who end up in recovery call rock bottom. I was living a pretty perilous lifestyle. I remember breaking my elbow at 3 a.m. in an incredibly drunken state as I was sitting down onto a bed that it turned out was six feet away. So I couldn’t play guitar during the preproduction for the album. There are many, many stories that I don’t know if I’ll ever tell, but it was a hard time to live through. It was also, in a way, a really fun time, but in a way that was horrifying, you know? 

“But maybe the record should rank higher, because I do feel like as an artistic statement, it’s pretty f—ing strong. ‘Longer Than You’ve Been Alive’ is maybe the song I’m most proud of in my later adult career. That’s the best song I’ve written since I was young and wasn’t as aware of what I was doing. 

“It’s funny—I have a handful of songwriters who are younger that I keep in touch with because I really admire them, and they’ll reach out to me for the old guy’s take on shit, which is hilarious to me, having started my career as a teen folkie, and one of them—I won’t out him, but he’s a pretty well-known songwriter one generation behind me, and just this last weekend, he was going through a tough time and was like, really struggling with career stuff and ‘how do I break through?’ He had spent some time in the city of Nashville, and he called to tell me that he felt like our song ‘Nashville’ was his theme song right now, that he just couldn’t crack this f—ing town. And I agree. When I was writing that song, that was how I felt about Nashville. We’ve always been too loud, we’ve never been country enough. We’re never right for that town. And maybe that goes for all of popular music—we’ve never been on the inside. That’s how it is now with the Americana [Music] Association. I don’t know why we’re not part of that world. The Americana Awards, we’re never invited to that f—ing party. And of course the big country music Nashville party, we’ve never been considered for an invitation. So ‘Nashville’ is a little bit bitter, but it was fun to write. It was fun to acknowledge—like, yeah, guess what? I’ve had an entire career, paying a mortgage and feeding two kids, without ever being invited to your stupid party.”

5) Hitchhike To Rhome (1994)

“For a lot of bands, the debut is the one that fans hold up in the highest regard, but I don’t think that’s true for us. With Hitchhike to Rhome, we were really figuring out who we were. Murry and I had been in bands where we were trying to get a record deal and fit into this post-Nirvana world of loud electric guitars and sludgy mid-tempo songs. I was always good with the mid-tempo, but I never could figure out how to make the distortion sound right. I could never figure out how to make any of that pose feel authentic to me. Once we gave that up, it was such a liberating moment. 

“I feel like it’s a pretty good record. It’s got so many great, fun moments, and my voice is goofy because I was really just figuring out how I wanted to sing. I was only a few years removed from a solo record I made as a seventeen-year-old in high school, where I sang with a pretty distinct British accent, because I listened to a lot of David Bowie and Beatles and the Kinks. But then all of a sudden, I was falling in love with Hank [Williams] Sr. and Willie Nelson and these artists I had rolled my eyes at when I was younger, and so I was literally finding my voice, like my singing voice, as well as my voice as a writer.”

4) Fight Songs (1999)

“I’ve got Fight Songs here for a few reasons. I feel like it’s a pretty good album with some really beautiful moments on it. As an experience for the band making the album, it was really hard, but it forced us to figure out how to work through artistic differences, which we had never encountered before. We’d always just been four guys in a band going, ‘Yeah, let’s do that.’ But when we went in to make Fight Songs, I had just moved to Los Angeles, and we were all sort of living separate lives. So we had to prove that we could survive our individuality surfacing within the context of the band, and Fight Songs was where we really proved to each other that we could do that. I think the record that came out of it had some incredible moments. ‘Lonely Holiday’ was the template for what could be a deeper, more long-lasting version of the Old 97’s sound, because it had our signature big guitar riffs in it, but it also had a lyrical depth that was more personal and complicated than I had been in my songs. There’s also a prettiness to it that we had never really hinted at, maybe other than on ‘Salome’ on Too Far to Care. But we had never really messed with that much, and suddenly it was at the forefront of this whole album. Some of the audience balked at it because they wanted us to be dusty, pale, bale-toting, drunk cowpunk kids, but we weren’t going to be that forever. So we had to figure out how we could grow up, and this was the first step towards that.”

3) Blame It on Gravity (2008)

“This is probably going to be a surprise to longtime fans, because it’s from an era that was sort of a tricky period in our band. And it wasn’t accidental. We made a conscious decision to make our band more family-friendly. It definitely cost us. I remember watching many of our contemporaries with whom we had been neck and neck with in the horse race and seeing them blow up. I was happy watching Wilco do it, because I think Jeff Tweedy, and that whole band, is brilliant, and I’m not saying the Old 97’s would have had the same trajectory as Wilco, but we could have made more hay than we did in the mid-aughts. I think that’s why the records from Drag It Up through The Grand Theatre are less well-known. My apologies to New West Records—we could have been a harder-working band, but it would have cost us, and I don’t think any of us were willing to pay the price we would have had to pay. 

“That said, Blame It on Gravity really stands up. It’s weird to call one of my own albums underrated, but within our catalog, I feel like it is. There are a lot of songs on it that are among the strongest in our catalog. ‘Color of a Lonely Heart’ is maybe the best recording of one of Murry’s songs in our catalog. ‘She Loves the Sunset’ is a classic that probably we should be playing every night, and people should be singing it at their weddings. ‘No Baby I’ is a really great, strong showing. ‘The Fool’ is a great song. ‘Dance With Me’ could—maybe should—have been a giant radio hit in a perfect world. But for me, the reason I rank this album in our top three is because I remember really distinctly, while recording vocals, figuring out the way I wanted my voice to sound. It wasn’t until this album that I felt like I was getting my voice to come out of my body as an aural instrument the way I wanted it to. This is the way I always wanted to sing. I’m happy with the way my voice sounded before that, but on some of those albums, my voice sounds sort of apologetic, or there’s an insecurity to my vocal delivery. I’ll always be grateful to Blame It on Gravity because it was where I finally learned how to sing.”

2) Too Far to Care (1997)

“Most fans would probably think of Too Far to Care as number one. It makes sense that this album is our most beloved by our fan base, because it was the world’s introduction to the Old 97’s. It’s our first major-label album, and we toured so hard behind this record. It got a lot of love from TV and movies and celebrity fans who championed the greatness of Too Far to Care and still do to this day. I’m really grateful for that. It was an incredible record to make, because it was the moment where we all realized that we were going to get to do this for the rest of our lives. We had gone from being a band of dreamers to a professional band of musicians who got to eschew other forms of employment and dive fully into making rock and roll for a living. 

“I wrote all these songs during the fifteen months during which we had a dozen-plus major labels courting us, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to make us choose their label over the other label. And then Elektra Records and the team we found there just made the whole time so magical. 

“This record was supposed to be produced by Don Was, but at the very last minute, Don got a call from the Rolling Stones. He called me and said, ‘I wouldn’t do this if it was any other band, but Mick called and he wants me to produce the next Stones record, and I have to bail on you guys.’ At the time, I was really bummed, because I thought we were giving up our ticket to stardom. But we found this up-and-coming producer from Boston named Wally Gagel, and he was so perfect, because he was indie rock, but he also knew how to make things sound giant in the way that, in the nineties, you needed things to sound giant, and most importantly, he had no connection to alt-country, Americana, or roots rock. He had no idea what we were even talking about when we would bring up the scene that we had come out of. So he didn’t use any of the musical tropes that we might have been stuck with. If somebody was trying to put us into some genre, we would have wound up with a record that stank of corn pone and hay bales, and instead we wound up with one that sounds like a big, timeless rock record with us just happening to be from Texas and writing the songs and playing the instruments. 

“I’m super proud of that record. Sometimes, when we go in to make a new record—it happened with [American Primitive]—we’ll talk about what made Too Far to Care so good, and is there something we should be doing to try and recapture some of that? But that’s the trap of nostalgia. You can never step in the same river twice, especially if that river flowed by twenty-eight years ago.”

1) Satellite Rides (2001)

“If you enjoy making an album, there’s going to be something special about it. But you should also bring in good songs. You should have a great producer and a great studio. And all of those things happened when we went into Willie Nelson’s Pedernales studio to make Satellite Rides. I myself was falling in love with the woman that I would marry and have a family with. Everybody in the band was really peaking at the moment we went in to make this album. It was a hot summer in the Hill Country in Texas. We had a stack of songs that were really fun, but also artistically challenging. We were doing something we’d never done before, leaning into our shared love of power-pop and the Cheap Trick side of the Old 97’s. We were drawing that out in our band. 

“I had written ‘Question’ in the few weeks leading up to the recording session, and we had Wally Gagel back in to produce, which was so fun because we felt a really great kinship with him. I was sitting at my station one day, playing ‘Question,’ which I had just written and hadn’t even given to the band because it was such a tiny little folk song that I didn’t think was going to work with these giant, bombastic power-pop songs that we had stacked up for the record. But Wally walked by my station while I was playing ‘Question’ to myself and he said, ‘What is that?’ I had met Erica and I didn’t really think about how this love song was for this girl that I wound up falling in love with within a week or two of writing the song. He said, ‘Just keep playing that’ and put a couple of mics in front of me, and that was it. There’s nothing else on that song, it was just me, messing around with a song I had just written, thinking about a girl I was in the midst of falling in love with, and would later build a family and a life with. And that’s the recording on the album—and it’s the most played of our songs on Spotify. It’s gotten the most usage in TV and film. It’s just this little two-and-a-half-minute song with one acoustic guitar and one vocal. It couldn’t be more simple. But it’s a distillation of the happiness I was feeling while we were making Satellite Rides. I think that happiness pervades the album, and makes that collection of songs shine even brighter.”