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Old 97's hitting on all cylinders

Group earns acclaim with 6 albums so far

Members of Old 97's Philip Peeples, left, Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea have been performing their alt-country music for a decade.
Members of Old 97's Philip Peeples, left, Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea have been performing their alt-country music for a decade.
Johnny Buzzerio, New West Records

Their songs play like a soundtrack for aimless drives through the vast spaces of Texas, for the lonely nights suffered by broken-hearted lovers, for drinking whiskey behind chicken wire on the stage of a cowboy bar.

Yet their songs also evolve from the rooms of a sleeping baby or the broom closet of a one-room apartment.

Formerly living in Texas and now relocated to upper New York state with a wife and child, Rhett Miller, the primary songwriter and lead singer for the Old 97's, still writes lyrics that reflect the life he once lived and the state he once called home much more than his current reality.

The outside world really only intrudes on his songwriting when it disturbs him, such as his son waking up or, on an earlier album, an angry ex-girlfriend who only allowed him to play his guitar in a closet that barely had room for him, let alone an instrument.

"My songwriting lives in a bubble," Miller said by phone from New Jersey. "It is only changed because of logistics."

Through six albums and over the course of a decade, the Old 97's, who play In The Venue Oct. 9, have earned an acclaim on par with other premier alt-country bands with a sound that bounces between dark, edgy cow-punk and smooth pop with a twang.

The band maintains that balance on its new album, "Drag It Up," with raucous songs about failing relationships ("Won't Be Home," "Smokers") and mid-tempo pop ditties about cheating wives and unrequited love ("Borrowed Bride," "Bloomington"), although it has a rougher, more immediate quality than Old 97's two previous albums.

Miller said he's happy with the new record, and audiences seem to be embracing many of the new songs. Seeing the band live, at least according to longtime fans, is akin to "getting hit by a train," an experience that will probably be replicated on this tour because of the inclusion of a number of old favorites.

The most notable song on the new record may be "The New Kid," a jealous stomp about being the flavor of the month. Although such lines as "Believe me, every year there is another one here/Don't you see I used to be the new kid/I am sorry to say, you'll get carried away/You will be replaced by the new kid" may sound envious of this year's Next Big Thing, Miller said that he never planned on becoming a rock star, even when being heavily touted as The Next Big Thing with the previous album, "Satellite Rides."

"I never felt like we were on top of the heap, and then we got pulled off," he said. "Our career has always been a slow climb."

Sadly, in the weeks leading up to the album's release, the Old 97's received more press for the assault of a fan, David Cuniff, by a skinhead during a show at The Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas. Cuniff was left seriously injured, and the band keeps tabs on him through his family. "(The skinhead) was not a fan, and it is not the type of person we typically attract to our show," Miller said. "It's the type of guy who used to beat me up, and it's sad."

It was not exactly the way the Old 97's wanted to end their four-year hiatus — the band never broke up, Miller said, despite the persistent rumors. But otherwise, they have not hit any rough patches.

"It wasn't a matter of cold turkey, and then all in, because we played together off and on during our break," Miller said. "We are hitting on all cylinders."


If you go . . .

What: Old '97s

Where: In the Venue

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $15

Phone: 467-8499 or 1-800-888-8499

Web:www.smithstix.com


E-mail: jloftin@desnews.com