Old 97’s Drag It Up

Release date: July 27, 2004

by Ken Bethea, lead guitarist

11 years in, I still can’t quite believe what I’ve been doing with my life.

We just finished recording our sixth album, Drag It Up. It’s the first for our new label, New West Records. After tinkering with our limits on the previous five releases, I think we’ve settled in with what we do best on Drag It Up – solid writing and performances, with enough bells and whistles to make things interesting. It reminds me of our earlier recordings, we mix bluegrass, surf, country, rock, folk and some good old-fashioned psychedelia.

We started the recording on a frozen February day in Woodstock, N.Y. at Dreamland Studios, a 19th century country church, full of stained glass and ghosts. We finished up in sunny San Diego at producer Mark Neill’s vintage studio, four of us stomping, screaming and picking guitars into one microphone. Mark is a hard-core recording traditionalist, far removed from today’s digital world. After working with modern technology on our previous three studio trips, we found old school 8-track recording both refreshing and challenging.

During the course of the project, we broke a $6000.00 microphone and my poor old classical guitar. We ate New York barbecue twice and would go back again. I played guitar with a pencil and both Rhett and I tried to play some bass (we failed). We stood in a giant echo-ey church and stared at each other. We stood in a tiny 8×8 room and stared at each other. We sang about satellites, stars, moonlight, cavities, death, cheating, Texas, friendship, parenthood, God and storms.

I think we’re finally mature enough to trust the machine that is now our band. Case in point: “Valium Waltz” – Rhett wrote the first version of this song around 1995 and we’ve tried for years to make it work for us. We had always approached it (perhaps due to its lyrical content) as a Texas-songwriter-tune, a la Robert Earl Keen or Lyle Lovett. Excellent artists, but not exactly our style. It never fell into its pocket until this past January in a Cleveland nightclub. We had gotten to the club early and were rehearsing some of the songs and Murry suggested trying “Valium” (the song). We just relaxed and played the damn thing. It sounded moody and psychedelic and wonderful and that’s pretty much the version you’ll hear on Drag It Up.

“The New Kid” is another excellent example of the way our band works. We didn’t gig much after wrapping up Satellite Rides. After years of relentless touring and recording, we decided to take a breather. When we got back together in Dallas in mid-2003 for a show at our favorite old haunt, The Sons Of Hermann Hall, we had a lot of catching up to do. As always Murry and Rhett sat down and swapped songs. Just before we had to run upstairs and go on-stage, Murry said to Rhett, “I’ve got this one song with a great melody, but I’ve only got the first line of lyrics: ‘The new kid he’s got money/ the money I deserve…’ Do you want to take a shot at it?” Rhett got that old gleam in his eye (he loves a challenge). A couple of days later he called Murry and played it for him over the phone. “Man you nailed it,” Murry said. Of course, I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I made them let me write an instrumental section and “BAM!”, a song was born. We hadn’t missed a beat.

It’s hard not to compare an album with those that came before it. Drag It Up is our most personal. We recorded it on 8 tracks, which pretty much means there was very little studio trickery. What you’ll hear, or maybe I should say, what you won’t hear is second-guessing, sleight of hand or revisionist thinking. Whereas Too Far To Care was an idealistic album made for big cars and air guitars, Drag It Up is better served by thinking and driving on Sunday afternoons in the middle of nowhere. Fight Songs was urban, hitchhike to rhome was a giant demo and Satellite Rides was hitchhike’s opposite, that is to say, for us (four hacks from Texas) a wonderful recording of near-perfect performances. Wreck Your Life was the spiritual predecessor to Drag It Up – punk rock recorded over the course of a few days in a Chicago attic. We have grown – albeit kicking and screaming – into a complex, philosophical and mortal band. I feel good about what we’ve done. It’s our brains, our breath, our fingers, our soul.

I hope you like Drag It Up.

A bit of history: Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Philip Peeples and I started the Old 97’s in 1993. Everyone we knew was either in a grunge band or looking to start one. I remember talking music philosophy with Rhett and Murry and we wanted to somehow tie together the music of Elvis Costello, Hank Williams, X, The Clash, Johnny Cash, David Bowie and Camper Van Beethoven. We played small country and rock bars in Dallas, usually for tips, beer and the occasional barbecue sandwich.

Though we played a lot – two sets a night, sometimes four nights a week – nothing really felt like it was moving. Then in early 1994, a fan that had a small record label called Big Iron offered to give us $3,000 to record a CD. We recorded hitchhike to rhome over the course of three rainy days in May. To our shock, it changed everything. Until that point, we had never sold a club out. Never packed `em in. Never looked out over the faces and seen the crowd singing along to every word. Suddenly that was happening, not only in our home state, but in Chicago and in St. Louis and everywhere our desperate little Dodge (Vanna White) would carry us. I remember the sense of validation it gave me. It told me that what we were doing was right. We just needed to keep plugging away.

We hooked up with a Chicago label, Bloodshot Records, in 1995 and released our second CD, Wreck Your Life. It was less comprehensive than hitchhike, more meat and potatoes. Our fans seemed to like it and we began to build a national fan base. We toured around the country, sleeping on floors and living hand-to-mouth all of ’95 and early ’96. That spring, during our showcase at South By Southwest, Austin’s big music industry conference, we knocked the ball out of the park. Suddenly all the majors wanted a piece of the action, and we couldn’t buy a meal in NY or LA.

We signed with Elektra and, the following year, released Too Far To Care, our ode to what used to be called country rock and is now called alternative country. It was the type of high octane CD we had always wanted to make. We followed Too Far with Fight Songs in 1999 and Satellite Rides in 2001, both featured songs that got quite a bit of airplay and sold well. On Fight Songs we began tinkering with the format again by making things more poppy – although lyrically it was our darkest album. On Satellite Rides we experimented with a ’60’s vibe (we have some BIG Kinks fans in the band), and wound up with a bouncy rock and roll record.

After ten years of constant work, we took a hiatus. We knew we’d make another record. We just needed, as I said earlier, a breather. Philip and I spent some serious quality time with our little kids (two each, thanks), took our wives out to dinner and started a band called The Scrap Hotel. Murry got married, built a studio in his new home in LA and played beautiful music with his wife Grey DeLisle (Sugar Hill Records). Rhett made his solo record, The Instigator, and moved to upstate New York, where his wife Erica promptly gave birth to Max, the fifth (but probably not the last) Old 97’s baby.

This is a family. Brothers. Friends forever. Rock and rollers.