MANHATTAN, NY—Stewart Ransom Miller II, better known as Rhett Miller, a solo artist and the lead singer of the alternative country band Old 97’s, has been a storyteller since his youth. He earned a creative writing scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College, where he attended briefly before dropping out to pursue a music career. A native of Austin, Texas, but who later lived in New York City and Los Angeles, Miller started performing folk and pop story-songs on the bar circuit in Dallas, and released his first solo album of acoustic folk songs in 1989.The producer of that album was Murry Hammond, with whom Miller in 1990 would form an alternative pop trio, the short-lived Sleepy Heroes, which disbanded after one album. The Sleepy Heroes’ mix of pop and Texas-styled twang helped lay the foundation for Old 97′s, however. Miller and Hammond recorded a demo tape with lead guitarist Ken Bethea, drummer Philip Peeples climbed on board shortly thereafter, and the quartet was established. Hammond’s childhood obsession with trains inspired the band’s new name, which paid homage to the country ballad “Wreck Of The Old 97.” Since 1994, Old 97’s have released 10 studio albums; Most Messed Up was released on April 29, 2014. Miller also is an author, whose work has been published in several books.
Country rock in the 1970s was clean and California-polished. By the mid to late 1990s, the Dallas-based Old 97’s was among the pioneer bands presenting a much more raucous shade of country rock. Old 97’s became a cornerstone of the alternative country movement, blending country-rooted songwriting with punk rock energy and power-pop delivery.
At Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom, Old 97′s hard-charging rock ‘n’ roll continued to lean more toward loud and brash rock than traditional Americana sounds. Tender moments were few; instead, the muscular power of the music seemed to slap the face of the audience incessantly. Multi-part harmonies often softened the blow, but there was nothing gentle about the furious manner in which the instruments were played. Miller sang most of the set, with Hammond picking up the vocals on a few songs. One could pick out Miller’s piercingly observant lyrics, but even when they turned serious, there was something about his swagger, the band’s joyful pop arrangements, the twangy cowpunk stomp and the raw bar-band looseness of the music that kept it all lighthearted. Old 97’s may never reach the popularity of much slicker country rockers like the Eagles or Linda Ronstadt, but after listening to tonight’s intense and no-holds-barred concert, who could insist that country music must sound nice?
Visit Old 97’s at old97s.com.