Some bands are both itchy and scratchy.
For nearly 30 years, the Texas quartet Old 97s have stoked a desire for a certain sound — music made where rock meets country, and Beatles-quality melodies glide over punk guitars and railyard mixes — then satisfied this request.
Frontman Rhett Miller, bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples create colorful and visceral alternative country. and they season each song with specificity, their demons and angels living in the details.
As the band returned to Colombia for a gig in Rose Park, it just felt right to browse through their catalog – the one I know and love. Rather than offering a list of favorite songs from the 97s, I went further. These are my 10 favorite moments within their catalog, presented in chronological order rather than ranked.
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“Big Brown Eyes” (1997)
Among the anchor songs of ’97s breakthrough “Too Far to Care” (following its first appearance on 1995’s “Wreck Your Life”), “Big Brown Eyes” is home to a number of memorable moments in just under 4 1/2 minutes, notably including the now romantically dated lyrics “And I call the weather and temperature just for a business.”
Miller serves these verses in a perfect manner, knowing where to lean on a syllable and when to lengthen. After a killer Bethea solo, it delivers the song’s best line-reading, wringing out every drop of emotion with a simple “yeah” to “I’m in trouble, yeah / How I miss you, yeah.”
“Coral Barrier” (1997)
The band sets a staggering scene here, with Bethea’s snappy riff and Peeples’ deceptively complex shuffle — then Miller’s lyrics undermine that swagger at every turn. Here, a fictionalized version of Miller talks about his romantic success in such a pitiful way it’s hilarious.
The song’s signature moment — and perhaps the most ’97s moment of all — comes when it approaches a woman with her first name, and a statement that dies once it airs: “My name is Stewart Ransom Miller / I’m a female serial killer.”
The answer comes back, more devastating than the call: “She said, ‘I’m already dead’ / That’s exactly what she said.”
Sometimes a single instrument conveys more than the most beautifully carved poetry. The 97s create a heartbreaking ballad here, describing the end of a sinking love. The song would stand on its own, but is enhanced by the loneliest sound – steel pedal master Jon Rauhouse’s weepy countermelody, entering the mix at verse two to deliver Miller’s mournful vocal ballast. .
The lead track from 1999’s “Fight Songs” album lives up to its name with distorted guitars and a world-weary chorus: “I’d give anything / Not to feel so shredded.” Miller and Hammond extract beauty from the toil, staggering their vocals over the word “jagged,” letting the word ring in listeners’ ears.
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“Murder (or Heart Attack)” (1999)
The first serious single of the 97s introduced a group of listeners – including this music journalist – to the band. With a wink and propelled by Bethea’s playful riff, Miller tells the unfortunate story of accidentally letting a friend’s cat loose; the song’s genius lies in its ability to be read as a story of lost love.
“And this whole messy situation could’ve been avoided / If only I’d closed the window,” Miller sings at the end of the first verse, with the emphasis on “everything” and “damn” sounding the true measure of his luck. cursed.
“Drawings on You” (2001)
Sometimes Miller directs scenes and portrays dark desires like a pulp fiction writer. This cut, from the album “Satellite Rides”, offers such dark romance. Miller sings from the perspective of a nightclub performer entangled with a woman named Annette, who is engaged to another. Promising to keep their affair a secret — except in his music — Miller’s devilish lead makes it clear he won’t just be waiting in the wings.
“I don’t wanna piss you off / Except I do it in secret,” he sings, wrapping those last three words in a romance of evil intentions.
“Skinny Roller Skate” (2001)
Miller’s final lines on this avant-guitar rocker — “I believe in love / But he don’t believe in me” — might be one of the perfectly desperate verses ever to make it onto the permanent record. Delivered first with a floating falsetto, then equal mixes of defiance and resignation, the line doesn’t break hearts so much as it reveals where they are already fractured.
“To the Devil’s Wages” (2001)
Hammond usually has one or two cuts per record (“Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue” from 2008’s “Blame it On Gravity” might be my favorite), so it’s okay to include it. Everything about his singing resonates here, but the floating, wordless vocals in the song’s intro — and every twist — conjures up every cowboy campfire tale and western ghost story you’ve heard.
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“My Two Feet” (2008)
Four songs in “Blame It on Gravity”, Miller and Co. deliver one of their most bittersweet melodies yet on an ode to longing and disappointment. “Right there upstairs / Stripped and unprepared / For now baby, we don’t care,” Miller sings to start the second verse. “You’re so fine, so fine / For the moment baby you were mine.”
That second phrase of “so good,” delivered with pure pain, says it all about what Miller’s main character has loved and lost.
“Longer Than You’re Alive” (2014)
Writing self-referential songs often comes off as indulgent — and, as this retrospective rocker shows, Miller isn’t usually a fan. But he makes an exception on the opening cut of “Most Messed Up,” a delightfully crooked confessional from decades on the road.
Miller’s walking, talking blues delivers a singular Old 97 moment: “I ain’t crazy about songs that get self-referential / And most of that stuff should be kept private / Aw, but who cares anymore / You should knowing the truth – it’s both great and boring.”
The Old 97s play at Rose Park at 7:30 p.m. on August 1; St. Louis singer-songwriter John Henry shares the bill. Tickets cost between $25 and $27. Find more details at https://rosemusichall.com/.
Aarik Danielsen is the Features and Culture Editor for Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.