Need a little good old Southern pathos with your rock? Looking for a little twang for your thang? Check out the Old 97’s. The Texas foursome has been rocking the Alt Country scene for over a decade, and they’ve racked up some stunners of ditties over the years. A happy mix of sly humor, witty turns of phrase, and old Country drama, the Old 97’s are doing it Southern Style.
What follows is my list of the top ten songs by the Old 97’s. Aside from compilations, a greatest hits album, and a live disc, they’ve released seven original studio albums. There is fine work on each of the Old 97’s discs, but each of my choices can be found on their third through sixth albums. That is when they found their fire.
10. “Crash on the Barrelhead”
From the 1999 album Fight Songs. A song that was rumored to have been written about Whiskeytown’s infamously temperamental front man, Ryan Adams, “Crash on the Barrelhead” is a sly, snarky poke at self-destructive behavior. “You’re gonna die the way you live. And the way you drink, you’re like a river bound for falls. And not much fun. You’re gonna crash on the barrelhead son.”
9. “The Other Shoe”
What’s a Country song, Alt or otherwise, without a little cheatin’ and shootin’? “The Other Shoe” tells a tale of a man hiding under the bed while his wife trysts her lover. 1995’s Wreck Your Life is rife with good old “you done me wrong” tales, and “The Other Shoe” is about as “you done me wrong” as they come. “You’ll take I-35 south toward Laredo. Then you’ll try to find a doctor who can prescribe an elixir that’ll make everything better, except your late wife and her lover.”
8. “Buick City Complex”
While I will confess that I feel that it was with 2001’s Satellite Rides that the Old 97’s started to loose some of the wit and Southern charm that made them stand out from so many of the Alt Country acts that experienced a surge in popularity in the late 90’s, there were some sparkling moments on the disc. A sweet, acoustic moment called “Question” just narrowly missed being included on this list, and “Buick City Complex” shows some of the old spark. “They’re tearing the Buick City Complex down. I think we’re the only people left in town. Where are you gonna move, where are you gonna move? Do you wanna mess around?”
7. “Big Brown Eyes”
One of the more sing-in-the-car numbers from a supremely sing-in-the-car kind of band, “Big Brown Eyes” from 1997’s superb Too Far to Care is a great song about finding a little lovin’ before the end of the world. Honestly, my favorite thing about this song is the homage the Old 97’s pay to their friend Robert, a longtime friend of front man Rhett Miller, who has regularly informed the band that they are going to hell for debaucheries. Sings Miller, “‘Cos if Robert’s dad is right, we might not make it through the night. And I’d hate to go alone. Please pick up the phone.” Brilliant.
6. “Nite Club”
Also from Too Far to Care, “Nite Club” finds Miller moping about being on the road while his girlfriend celebrates her 22nd birthday back home in Texas. “Yeah this old nightclub stole my youth. This old nightclub stole my true love. It follows me around from town to town. I just might get drunk tonight and burn the nightclub down.”
In my opinion, Wreck Your Life is the quintessential Old 97’s album. “W-I-F-E” is an excellent example of the witty pathos of the Old 97’s music. “I’ve got my wife, the other women, and the whiskey killing me. The first two make it so that I see red. The third one makes it so that I can’t see. If I had half a brain left after my debauchery, I’d give up the other women, and the W-I-F-E.”
Again from Wreck Your Life, “Doreen” is one of the more definitive Old 97’s numbers. First of all, it’s called Doreen. Furthermore, try this on for Southern size: “Well I’m pulling into Cleveland, in a seven-seater tour van. There’s eight of us, so I’m sleeping on the floor. The guy that plays the banjo keeps on handing me the Old Crow. It multiplies my sorrow, I can’t take it anymore.”
3. “Murder (Or a Heart Attack)”
One night, before the recording of the album Fight Songs, Rhett Miller was house sitting for a friend when he inadvertently left a window open, allowing the friend’s cat to escape. The result of his desperate, guilty, drunken search for the feline is one of the Old 97’s better, more rockin’ songs, “Murder (Or a Heart Attack)”. “And I may be leavin’ myself open to a murder or a heart attack. But I’m leavin’ the back door open ’til you come back, ’til you come back. And I may be movin’ myself closer to a real untimely end. But I’m leavin’ the back door open ’til you come home again.” The cat returned, safely.
2. “Time Bomb”
“I got a time bomb, in my mind Mom. I hear it ticking, but I don’t know why. I call the police, but they don’t like me. I hear ’em whispering when I walk by. I got a land mine in my bloodline. I’m not immune to getting blown apart. She’s like a claymore, that’s what she’s there for. She’s waiting ’round here to get blown apart.” From Too Far to Care. While delivering the misery implicit in the lyrics, this song has one of the most satisfying, driving beats of any song ever recorded by the Old 97’s. It’s a must hear.
Want to hear a crowd of people sing, “I’m sick to death of love, and I’m sick to death of tryin'” in unison? Check out any Old 97’s show. They’ll pull out the stopper at some point and sing “Salome” from the album Too Far to Care. A melodic little ditty, it is one of those gut gripping songs that still makes you step back and appreciate the ease in which Miller can turn a phrase. “Salome, untie my hands. I’ll find another lady, and you’ll wreck another man. It’s over now, yeah and so are we. My blood’s turned to dirt girl, you broke every part of me.”
Really, what else is there to say?