When the Old 97's decided to record their new album Graveyard Whistling in the same West Texas studio they'd recorded in 20 years ago, it was anything but a safe decision. Sonic Ranch, a recording studio built into an old hacienda on a giant pecan orchard in the border town of Tornillo, outside El Paso, hadn't changed much over the years. But the lives of singer Rhett Miller and his band mates couldn't have been more different.
"We had just signed to a major label and had this heady courting process," says Miller, now 46, looking back on the Too Far to Care sessions from two decades ago, when they last set foot in Tornillo. "Here we were getting to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a record. It was all very glittery and new."
Now 24 years into their life as a band, being musicians is anything but glittery and new for Old 97's. Their major label days may be a thing of the past, but things have worked out anyway. The band's lineup, which includes guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples, is even the same as it was when they first began in 1993.
"It was really cool having the perspective now of having had a career in music and going back to the place where, really, we were just on the verge of having a career in music," says Miller. "It actually worked out. Our crazy plan worked."
Graveyard Whistling, out now via ATO Records, could have easily been a victory lap. The Old 97's' last album, 2014's raucous Most Messed Up, was widely hailed as a return to form for the alt-country vets. But if anything, the response to that record created a new sense of urgency. "It was a weird thing to follow that up," Miller says. "It's weird 20 years in to have that much pressure. Normally that would be your second album where you feel that type of pressure."
Replicating Most Messed Up, however, was not on the band's agenda. "It would be so easy to feel like we're coasting off into that good night. So many of our contemporaries are at a point in their careers where each record is a more mellow version of the last record," Miller says. "If that was our lot, we would pack it in. That's so boring, so depressing."
Instead, Graveyard Whistling takes on a darker, mellower tone. Whereas Most Messed Up kicked off with the defiant middle-aged anthem "Longer Than You've Been Alive," the new album opens with a sense of entrapment ("I Don't Wanna Die in This Town") and ends on a note of nostalgia ("Those Were the Days"). The band, aware of that sense of dread, considered giving the album names like The Hangover, Morning After and Aftermath.
But the tone of the project, whittled down to 11 songs from the 30 that Miller brought to the sessions, was at least partially an accident. "I write without knowing what record it will be for usually. There are times when I've written songs that would just never work for the band," says Miller, who released his latest solo record, The Traveler, the year after Most Messed Up. "I do find knowing that I have [the option of] a solo record allows me to write whatever I want."
The dusty, desolate West Texas surroundings did play a role, as Miller says a reverb-heavy, "spaghetti western" vibe seeped in almost unnoticed. So, too, did those memories from the past, as lead single "Good With God," which features Brandi Carlile as the voice of God, demonstrates: "Here I am writing from the perspective of a guy looking back on his life, trying to absolve himself of any culpability and failing [at it]," says Miller. "It was easy to put myself into that character just because I was so keenly aware of my younger self in the room looking at me."
The past, however, didn't wind up being the burden that it could have been. Those rock star dreams never really panned out for Old 97's, but Miller says they were lucky to cash in before the music business changed. "I have always liked feeling like an underdog. I think if we had had a hit, it would've been harder to continue than with what we've had, which is a really steady career," he says. "I think this is a better world, and one of the reasons is that longevity is something that's allowed now under the current system."
It helped that the sessions themselves were laid back. While hanging out at the hacienda, Miller befriended one of his childhood heroes, David J of Bauhaus, who was also there recording, and even contributed backup vocals to one of J's songs. Miller and his band mates spent their free time hiking through the pecan orchard and even set up a makeshift shooting range with old cymbals and milk cartons, which they peppered with BB guns.
"In the making of and touring behind Most Messed Up, we really came back together stronger than we have been in years," says Miller, who admits that there had been some friction during the recording of the previous album. "So to come back together to make the follow-up to that felt really good. It felt really natural."
Where that means the Old 97's go next remains "a good question," Miller says with a laugh. Earlier this week they appeared on Late Night With Seth Myers, where Nikki Lane joined them in Carlile's place to sing "Good With God," and they’re due to hit the road in support of Graveyard Whistling this weekend. The best clue for the future may come from "I Don't Wanna Die in This Town," a song (co-written with fellow Texan Salim Nourallah) that was inspired by the story of a near-death experience for Frank Sinatra. Defying doctor's orders, Sinatra, having suffered a heart attack while on tour, allegedly refused to stay overnight in an emergency room.
"It's just such a perfect story of a touring musician, because you're always going and going and no town feels like home," says Miller. "You just want to keep going. There’s a certain invincibility and immortality to that. I'll never stop. I'll just always keep going."