If any band is hardwired for tapping into a youthful holiday spirit, it’s the Old 97’s. The Texas cowpunks’ bratty insouciance could speak to the heart of any kid on Christmas morning, but their new LP Love the Holidays only happened because of the persistence of frontman Rhett Miller.
“The idea had been in the back of my mind for a few years, but the band was really uncomfortable with the idea of me trying to write songs for it,” says Miller, who defended his idea with his fellow 97’s last January. “My side of the argument was that I wasn’t really interested in treading old ground, being an interpreter of old Christmas songs that have all been done a million times.”
Fresh off the release of 2017’s Graveyard Whistling, the Old 97’s were bombarded with new songs like “I Believe in Santa Claus” and “Gotta Love Being a Kid (Merry Christmas)” from their irrepressible leader, who was simultaneously working on a solo album, The Messenger, and a book of children’s poems. “I started sending them song after song after song. I just wore them down,” Miller says with a laugh.
The end result sees nine original cuts paired with one traditional track, “Auld Lang Syne,” which closes out Love the Holidays. If the idea of a holiday album sounds like a band cashing in or going soft — this year is the group’s 25th anniversary — rest assured: these are Old 97’s songs through and through. “One thing I realized early on was that the holiday element wasn’t the theme of each song, necessarily, but rather the setting. So that was fun. I realized that I could just write the songs I always write, but [they] take place during December,” Miller says.
Produced by John Pedigo, Love the Holidays does see the band step outside its comfort zone, especially on “Gotta Love Being a Kid” — which Miller refers to as a “straight-up old-school Christmas song” — and “Snow Angels.”
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“‘Snow Angels’ is more like a contemplation of where we are as a culture. It’s more of a social commentary than anything I’ve ever done, through the filter of the generosity that’s supposed to be at the heart of the Christmas season. It’s talking about seeing the humanity in people with whom you disagree,” Miller says. “Those were the scariest songs to write, especially ‘Snow Angels,’ and I’m glad I did it. I don’t know that I’m going to make social commentary a staple in my writing moving forward, but I’m glad [I tried it].”
Miller pushed himself in some other, less obvious ways, like on the very much on-brand “Hobo Christmas Song,” sung by bassist Murry Hammond. “I wrote [that one] with Murry in mind as the vocalist. I really wanted Murry to have a hobo Christmas song, and I wound up trading yodels on that. Of all things, I never thought I would yodel on an album, but Murry talked me into doing it,” Miller says.
And while Miller will release his children’s book No More Poems in March, he says the close timing of Love the Holidays is purely coincidental.
“A lot of the time when bands make Christmas records or, god forbid, someone does something geared towards children, it’s almost seen as a dirty ploy to take money from parents or holiday revelers,” he says. “[But] I think we’re at a point where everybody knows we’re not trying get rich. For god’s sake, I’m the only Old 97’s member not in his fifties. If we’ve gotten this far without any real wealth, I think we’ll be fine.”