“We felt some kinship to the alt-rock scene of the early Nineties, but we wanted to do it on our own terms. We wanted to be able to love Hank Williams and love punk rock.” While this sentiment from Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller isn’t a strange concept today, it was still a relatively underground idea when he and his bandmates unleashed their raw-and-rowdy major label debut Too Far to Care 20 years ago this month – and helped birth a whole new subgenre in the process.
Together with guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples, Miller and Hammond mixed the explosiveness of punk rock and the raw sonics of alternative music with heavy doses of classic country swagger. Two albums – 1994’s Hitchhike to Rhome and 1995’s Wreck Your Life – quickly put Old 97’s on the map outside of their native Dallas, Texas, and generated major label buzz.
By Miller’s count, no less than 15 labels courted the band over a six-month period. “They were flying us to New York and Los Angeles and taking us to every major sporting event you could imagine,” he says. “There was so much noise and so much ego inflation. I can see why so many bands get lost when their ship comes in.”
It was a unique moment in time for both the band and also the unruly, amorphous musical scene of which they were a part. “It felt like there was something in the zeitgeist happening with this genre of music that everyone was still trying to find the right name for,” he says of the nascent movement, which also included Uncle Tupelo (and its post-breakup offshoots Wilco and Son Volt), Drive-By Truckers and the Ryan Adams-led Whiskeytown.
Questionable terms like “y’alternative,” “honky skronk” “insurgent country” and “cow punk” (a holdover from the Eighties) were being thrown around to describe the sound, with the consensus eventually landing on “alternative country,” often shortened to just “alt-country.”
“It’s like we all had the same education but were on different campuses,” Hammond says of the scene and its like-minded bands. “We’d all gone through punk rock and Sixties garage rock and we all liked Johnny Cash and rediscovered country music around the same time.”
Eventually signing with Elektra Records, Old 97’s decamped for El Paso to record at the famed Sonic Ranch studio (then known as Village Productions). The bucolic setting near the Rio Grande helped inspire what would become Too Far to Care.
“When we finally wound up out in this little desert hacienda surrounded by a pecan orchard, it felt like one of those science-fiction movies where you get squeezed through a time portal,” Miller says. Working with producer Wally Gagel, the band cut some of the most enduring songs of their career and refined their sound along the way.
Miller points to the boozy ballad “Salome” as a notable evolutionary step in the songwriting of the 97’s. Sandwiched in between the full-throated chorus of “Broadway” and the twangy railroad chug of “W. TX Teardrops,” the song features the pedal-steel work of guest Jon Rauhouse, who would also play on the band’s 2014 effort Most Messed Up. “That song was a really big breakthrough because the live sound of our band was so caveman at that time,” Miller says. “We went from being a band that was always at 9 or 10 on the volume and energy scale, to being a band that could make something work on the lower, quiet side.”
Still, the group also raged, cutting the scorching album opener (and frequent live-show encore) “Timebomb.” For the record’s howling closer, “Four Leaf Clover,” they enlisted Exene Cervenka of L.A. punk band X to sing harmony. “I was a little star-struck around Exene,” says Hammond, “but now she’s my buddy. I don’t always know what to talk to people about, but with Exene I know I can always talk music and UFOs.”
For Miller, it’s two other subjects that remind him most of the Too Far to Care sessions: presidents and telephones. Both, he says, have evolved greatly in the last two decades.
“We play ‘Barrier Reef’ every night and I have to sing the line, “Midnight came, midnight went, I thought I was the president,” he says of the album’s second song. “When I wrote it, Clinton was in office but he hadn’t yet gone through the Lewinsky scandal. When that happened, I would sing it and think that it was a sly, subtle reference to oral sex. Then when Bush was in office, I was personally not a fan of his policies, so that line changed to being about a warmonger. Now it’s even more complicated because of our current president.”
Miller is even more amazed by how anachronistic payphones have become. On the road in support of the band’s early albums, the quarter-call was his primary source of connecting with loved ones. “When I wrote the line ‘telephones makes strangers out of lovers’ in ‘Niteclub,’ I was imaging a guy on the side of the road with trucks whizzing by in the rain and him getting yelled at by a girlfriend,” he says. “Now when I sing it, I’m looking down at an audience full of people where the majority of them are on their cell phones. Telephones are still making strangers out of lovers, but it’s because it’s all we look at and all we think about.”
The line about “calling time and temperature just for some company” in LP standout “Big Brown Eyes” is especially dated – which Miller admits to realizing even at the time he wrote it. “It was already a joke in ’97,” he says. “It was just my way of shouting out to a past that was disappearing.”
Surprisingly, that landline past came rushing back to Miller when he returned to the Sonic Ranch to record the band’s latest album, Graveyard Whistling, released in February. Opening a drawer of a bedside table, he discovered a note containing the telephone number of the girl about whom many of the songs on Too Far to Care were written.
But for Miller, the legacy of Too Far to Care isn’t about phone calls, ex-presidents or even alt-country. In fact, the “alt-country” tag gave him grief for quite some time. “It took me a bunch of years to come to peace with it, but I embrace it to some extent now,” he concedes. “I feed my kids with alt-country – who would’ve thought that was even possible?”
Rather, he credit’s the album’s staying power to a certain innocence and lack of irony. He and the 97’s were writing, recording and playing from the heart.
“There was nothing calculated or self-aware about Too Far to Care,” he says, “and that’s what people still respond to when they hear those songs.”