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"I was reading an article about 16 Horsepower," says Rhett Miller, the leader of the Old 97's, from Dallas, Texas, "and one of the guys in the band said something like, 'Trains are bad. If we could tour in a covered wagon, we would.' And I was like, 'You would not. Most of the time it sucks touring in a van."
Obviously, Miller isn't knocking himself out to establish his rustic credentials, even though doing so would likely enhance his reputation among boosters of neo-C&W, the genre to which his group is most frequently assigned. And because he doesn't toe the company line, the members of the intelligentsia behind this tight-knit, cliquish scene do more than view him and his bandmates (drummer Philip Peeples, bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond and guitarist Ken Bethea) with suspicion; they all but accuse them of apostasy. For proof, look no further than a review of the act's Elektra Records debut, Too Far to Care, that was written for Rolling Stone by Grant Alden, editor of No Depression, a magazine that shares its name with the artistic style he regularly champions. After praising a release by the Bottle Rockets, Alden denigrated the Old 97's by comparison, dismissing their disc as "speed twang" that missed the point of the music entirely. "It was horrible," Miller concedes. "And what's worse is that Rolling Stone is the only thing people in Texas read. We get one bad review, and they all think everybody in America hates our record. Whereas it's actually just one guy--and Grant Alden has such an agenda."
Not that Miller doesn't occasionally ask for such abuse. He regularly commits the heresy of referring to the Old 97's as a "rock band" and isn't above verbally slapping around other country-rock combos. "We've had just about every alternative country band in the nation open up for us at one point or another," he says, "and about half of them are the kind that will get up there with, like, bales of hay and big straws sticking out of their teeth and go, 'This song is called "Two Turds and a Golf Ball."' God, I hate that."
Of course, the Old 97's are sometimes guilty of putting on country airs themselves. Miller claims that the players have tried to "steer clear of cowboy imagery in our packaging" but concedes that "we haven't done it totally successfully." He's right: The cover of Too Far features a couple of toy riflemen aiming their weapons at each other across a cactus-strewn landscape, and the disc itself is screened with a silhouette of a guitar-wielding Westerner who bears a striking resemblance to the Woody character from Toy Story. But track titles such as "Broadway," "Just Like California" and "Barrier Reef" make it clear that Miller is interested in doing more than putting dialogue from old John Wayne movies to a galloping beat. The musicians may employ the rudiments of rockin' country, but they do so without squeezing all of the juice out of them. Some of the tunes are clamorous, gleefully hokey entertainments and nothing more, while others, like "Salome" ("The full moon might work magic, girl/But I won't disappear"), don't hide their sincerity under a bushel basket. All of them, however, vibrate with the sheer joy these guys had bringing them to life. Plenty of y'allternative efforts are easier to admire than to listen to, but not this one; the disc is hook-crammed fun from the get-go. That it's also got some substance to it is a pleasant bonus.
Although Miller came by his romance with country honestly, he didn't commit to the music until after he had flirted with other forms. Before he had the slightest interest in Jimmy Rodgers or Hank Williams, in fact, Miller was over the moon about, of all groups, the Kingston Trio. "My mom was into folk, and when I was about eight or nine, she took me to see one of their shows," he recalls. "In a lot of ways, they were already over the hill at that point; it was more or less a traveling revue. But I thought it was awesome. Those kinds of songs just appealed to me so much more than, you know, the big rawk thing." This favorable impression was further heightened when he actually got a chance to meet the vocalists. "We hung around after the show, and as they were packing up their instruments, my mom said, 'Would you guys like some home-cooked food?' And they did. They came back to the house and ate with us and everything. My dad even played racquetball with them. It was very cool."
Thus smitten, Miller learned to play guitar--and by the time he hit fifteen, compositions were pouring out of him. Unlike other musically inclined classmates, who gravitated toward (his words) "U2 clone bands," he remained stubbornly unplugged--and before long, he had become a familiar figure at Dallas folk establishments. He even made a record during this period (buddy and future bandmate Hammond produced it), earning for himself a taste of local celebrity. "I think I inspired a whole glut of teenage acoustic singer-songwriters here," he confesses. "And unfortunately, only about one of them turned out to be any good."