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MUSIC: Ventura County | ROCKTALK

Tears From Texas

Old 97's pair sad tales of love with country-rock melodies.

September 11, 1997|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Misery plus tragedy equals comedy, daytime soaps or something like that--I forget. For this columnist, such an equation also applies to the album of the year: "Too Far to Care," by the Old 97's, which contains some damn fine music of the roots- rock/country-rock/pop-rock/what-the-heck variety.

Named for a Johnny Cash song, the Old 97's will open for the infinitely louder and faster Social Distortion on Friday night at the Santa Barbara County Bowl.

Yet another good Texas band, the Old 97's have released three albums, the newest one being its major-label debut (Elektra). It features not only a bunch of catchy melodies, but some state-of-the-art catharsis as singer-songwriter Rhett Miller philosophizes about the bad ol' days with his ex, Miss Take. It's easy to see why Miller was offered writing scholarships to a pair of colleges.

From "Timebomb," a sample: "I've got a time bomb in my mind, mom. . . . She's like a Claymore [land mine], that's what she's there for. . . . Having her on my brain is like getting hit by a train. She's going to kill me. . . ."

And from "Salome": "And I'm tired of making friends and I'm tired of making time. I'm sick to death of love and I'm sick to death of trying. . . ."

Anyway, between those lonely teardrops, Miller took good notes. Along with bass player Murray Hammond, Miller discussed the Old 97's during a recent phoner.

*

Is the new album different than the other two?

Miller: Well, we got to spend more time making it, and this time we actually had a producer.

Hammond: Sonically, it's bigger and fuller and is more like what we sound like live--noisy and chaotic.

*

Are you guys rich rock stars yet?

Miller: This is our most rock star day yet, ever. We turned down a European tour to play this [industry] showcase gig in Atlanta. And right now we're in a hotel room ordering room service.

Hammond: Yeah, but we're lame--we're just getting veggie burgers.

*

I was trying to order one of your old albums and the catalog listed it as country music. Do you guys play country music?

Miller: Yes, if Tom Petty can be country, so can we. Actually, we're more of a rock band; we're as much British Invasion as we are country.

Hammond: There's something about that whole country-rock thing. Once you mention the word "country," people tend to forget about the "rock" part. I think we're not too country for rock stations, but we are too rock for country stations.

Miller: But we are weird enough for college radio. They'll take anybody.

*

Why are there so many good musicians in Texas?

Hammond: We have more people in general, plus there's a lot of tradition, which we sort of inherited.

*

Harry Nilsson once wrote: "Now, if you haven't got an answer, then you haven't got a question. And if you haven't got a question, you've never had a problem. But if you've never had a problem, well, everyone would be happy. But if everyone was happy, there'd never be a love song . . ." Was he telling the truth?

Miller: Definitely. The girl all those songs were written about is still in Dallas. I was with her for four years. It was tough.

*

So, more or less, she broke your heart, but you took good notes?

Miller: That is fully true. Which brings me to this: Do I ask for misery in order to get material?

*

Well, do you?

Miller: I sure hope not.

*

Tell me about the song "Timebomb." We all know one of those.

Miller: That was more of a crafted song for us, while "Salome" came out in about an hour. For "Timebomb," Murray had this killer melody and we went from there.

*

What about "Salome"?

Miller: It's about the aforementioned ex.

*

What was your strangest gig?

Hammond: It would have to be that time in Lawrence, Kan., when we played to four or five punks sitting at the counter with their backs to us making fun of us. That was about 2 1/2 years ago.

*

If the band could have a dream gig--what would it be?

Miller: Opening for Johnny Cash would be dreamy. Or the Beatles. Or Johnny Cash and AC/DC and maybe the Kinks.

Hammond: How about Johnny Cash in 1967?

*

Who goes to an Old 97's show?

Miller: We're starting to get a lot more cute girls, plus people who really drink a lot. And since I quit smoking seven weeks ago, I notice a lot of people that smoke.

*

What's the secret to the road?

Miller: Nutri-Grain bars.

Hammond: Be friends and eat lots of beef jerky.

BE THERE

Old 97's, Dance Hall Crashers, MXPX, Social Distortion at Santa Barbara County Bowl, 6 p.m. Friday, $19.50. Call 962-7411.

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