My friend John introduced me to the Old 97’s several years ago during a summer we all dubbed “The Summer of Rock Music,” although really our traipsing around to every show we possibly could lasted well into the fall and possibly winter of that year and into the following year.
The Old 97’s are one of those bands that I will always regret not having in my life sooner. There’s other bands and singers I could have written about here with whom I have been acquainted with for much longer, have been a part of my formative years, been with me through several physical and metaphorical journeys and blah blah blah, but sometimes a band just hits you at the right place at the right moment and effortlessly inserts itself into the soundtrack of your life. And that’s what the Old 97’s did for me. The truth is my years in San Antonio are some of the best years of my life, and the Old 97’s will always transport me back to hot summer nights in dusty dance halls, drinking Shiner and rocking out to some amazing live music. They provided the background music to my life in Texas.
I hadn’t heard very much of their stuff before I went to that first show in 2011. John made me a CD he titled “The Old 97’s Crash Course,” and that was my introduction. I was instantly hooked, listening to it nonstop leading up to the show. And I fell in love from the first chord they struck onstage. They will always be one of the best live shows I’ll ever see, no matter how many more shows I live to see.
I have no idea in what genre to classify them, and I think that’s one of the best things about them. Some of the songs sound country, some sound a little punk, some a weird mix of the two that somehow always works. And their catalogue of work is so prolific, they’ve spilled over into several other genres at this point. But lead singer Rhett Miller just calls it all rock and roll like he doesn’t really give a shit what box they fit into or if they fit into any box at all. And that’s pretty cool.
I saw them several times in San Antonio before I left the state for good – saw all the things you come to expect at a good Old 97’s show: at least one proposal during “Question,” bassist Murry Hammond singing a smattering of crowd favorites, Rhett drunkenly backing up Murry on “Valentine,” the time-honored and never-failing “Timebomb” at the end of the show (after what is usually a lengthy encore), and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Rhett’s hair that just keeps getting more amazing every time I see them (seriously, what is that?).
It was everything I could ever want in a band – raw and gritty, a little jaded with just enough cynicism to make it feel real, not forced or contrived or trying to be anything it’s not. Give me a band who claims “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On” as one of their few love songs and belts out the lyric “Love is a marathon – sometimes you puke,” and I’m instantly sold. Screw all that impossible love crap. I want real, and that’s what you get with a good Old 97’s song.
The real reason I was struck with inspiration to write this love letter is that recently, after not having the opportunity to see the Old 97’s since I left Texas more than four years ago, they finally came to my neck of the woods here in Virginia a couple weeks ago. San Antonio was the last time I had the chance to be around great music, to discover new bands and go see some amazing performances. I’ve been missing and trying to get back to it ever since.
So when I saw the Old 97’s were performing in Norfolk at one of my favorite venues, there was no way I was missing it. I went by myself, because screw it, right? A friend had to bail unexpectedly, and there wasn’t anyone else I wanted to take who I thought would appreciate them the way I did, and anyone who loves music like I do knows you don’t take just anyone to see one of your favorite bands. Besides, the Old 97’s feel like old friends. We’ve got history that now crosses state lines.
From the moment they stepped onstage that night, I was transported back in time those hot summer shows in San Antonio. It was a different vibe seeing them outside their home state in a way I can’t explain except to say that they understand Texans in a way they’ll never understand Virginians, but it didn’t make it any less amazing. And it reaffirmed everything I love about their music – the energy, the in-your-face lyrics, the big ole middle finger to the man, and a subtle ode to the working man (or woman) in all of us that always feels a little Dylan-esque to me.
My only disappointment was that they couldn’t play forever. There’s no greater feeling than going to a show and never wanting the band to stop playing. It made me homesick in a way I hadn’t really fathomed I missed Texas, so maybe this is a love letter as much to Texas as it is to the Old 97’s.
So come back soon, boys. This homesick pseudo-Texan will be waiting in the front row, hoping you play a little “State of Texas” to help me miss it just a little less for a while.
Won’t Be Home
A State of Texas