Old 97s mark career milestones as they look to the future

Paul Moore
The Old 97's — Phillip Peeples (from left), Ken Bethea, Rhett Miller and Murray Hammond — perform Tuesday at the Hi-Tone Café.

Paul Moore The Old 97's — Phillip Peeples (from left), Ken Bethea, Rhett Miller and Murray Hammond — perform Tuesday at the Hi-Tone Café.

The Old 97's, The Travoltas

Tuesday at 9 p.m. at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar. Tickets are $15, available at the door or at hitonememphis.com. Call 901-278-8663 for more information.

Next month will mark 20 years since the first time the members of the Old 97's got on a stage together. It's another in a series of career milestones for the long-running Dallas alt-country band.

Last fall, the group celebrated the 15th anniversary of its 1997 major-label debut, Too Far to Care, with a lavish reissue and a slate of concerts at which they performed the album from start to finish. On Tuesday, the group — singer Rhett Miller, bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples — will be in Memphis to work up the LP, along with other favorites from its catalog, during a show at the Hi-Tone Café.

"It's weird: Playing that album every night has had a transportive effect on me," Miller says of the critically acclaimed Elektra LP which helped define the band's charming, kinetic brand of roots-pop. "That record represented such a specific moment for us. We were poised on the brink of making a life and a living out of this weird thing that we all had grown up loving but figured would never work. And finally it was working."

"I'm generally not one for nostalgia; it's inherently depressing to me," he says. "But I love the fact that we get to celebrate this record and it doesn't feel like that. Maybe it's that we never had that huge breakthrough success, so it doesn't feel like we're somehow trying to resurrect the '90s. That record isn't frozen in time. The songs, and the album — it still feels like a living thing to us."

Too Far to Care enjoyed a second life last year when it was released in a deluxe expanded edition, accompanied by set of unreleased demos called They Made a Monster. The band has been playing their full-album shows to widespread acclaim ever since.

"We are pretty faithful to the record," Miller says. "We always talk about how we should switch this up and switch that up, and we don't ever do it. The songs sort of bully us into playing them the way they were recorded on the album. But, of course, we've got the perspective of being 40-year-old men, not 20-somethings, playing these songs now, so it is different in some ways."

For Miller, it's clear that the Too Far To Care-era holds a special place in his heart. "It was definitely my most fertile time as a songwriter," he says. "There are still songs from that time I'm remembering now that I should finish, or songs that wound up on later records that were started during that period. I really lived and breathed songwriting then.

"Nowadays, the business of music gets in the way and all the logistics of it. And there's also life: I've got a family and a couple kids. The songwriting isn't at the top of the list every morning when I wake up. It's still on the list. But that was a unique time for me personally."

The Too Far reissue followed on the heels of the band's last new studio albums, the two-volume series The Grand Theatre. The projects marked the end of a fruitful decade-long run with Los Angeles-based label New West.

"We loved working with New West and especially with A&R man Peter Jesperson, who is such a cool guy. But I like moving around. Switching labels is a little like redecorating your house. Sometimes it's nice to walk into a new room."

The 97's recently hired new management, and the band is currently shopping for a new record deal. They don't anticipate having the next album out until 2014, though fans may hear new music sooner than that.

"One of the nice things about the modern music industry model is we can record songs here and there and just release them online or digitally," Miller says. "There are lots of fun options, so I'm sure we're going to do things differently than the old 'one album every 18 to 24 months' schedule."

More important than the timing of the album is the quality of the work. It's clear the Grand Theatre and Too Far to Care projects represented a summing up and clearing of the decks for the band, allowing them to start a new phase of their career. "I for one want to make sure that the next record is not a retread or walking back over the same old ground," Miller says. "I want to put out a record that feels like it belongs right now."

While maintaining his role leading the 97's, Miller has carried on a solo career as well, releasing five albums under his own name, including 2012's The Dreamer. He says he has a pile of solo songs that he may record and release after the next 97's project. "I'll always do both, but I try and make the 97's my priority. They're the train that brought me to this awesome station," he says. "That's a clunky metaphor, but you get what I mean."

After they finish up their final Too Far to Care album dates this month, the band will co-headline a tour with Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. Miller will then do a solo acoustic run and then start thinking about the next 97's LP and the start of the next 20 years of the group's career.

"Twenty years: Wow! I don't think we ever realistically thought that we'd get to this point and still be viable creatively as a band and selling tickets and having fun," Miller says. "So it's all very cool to us. And we're excited about what comes next."

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