Best of Texas
Old 97’s bridge the not-so-distant space between country music and punk rock.
Originally from north Texas, the band achieved the highest debut of its 20-year recording career this month with its latest album, “Most Messed Up.”
Entering the Billboard 200 all-genre albums chart at No. 30, “Most Messed Up” also debuted in the independent albums top 10 and vinyl albums top five.
“It seems to be a uniquely well-received record,” Old 97’s bassist Murry Hammond said from his home in Los Angeles. “I’m really happy. I knew it was a special record, but you don’t always know that people are going to get it the way you do.”
Old 97’s — singer-guitarist Rhett Miller; guitarist Ken Bethea; drummer Philip Pepples; and Hammond — recorded “Most Messed Up” at The Texas Treefort in Austin.
The group made its past three albums at Treefort with the same producer, Salim Nourallah, in the control booth.
“We’ll probably do something different next time, but it’s really comfortable down there,” Hammond said.
“We loosen up in that environment. That was key for doing the kind of record that we did.”
Hammond has big compliments for bandmate Miller’s “Most Messed Up” songwriting.
“What’s special about this record is that it’s autobiography about what was going on with Rhett,” he said. “He was writing about tough times during midlife. And the songs are clever and funny. They’re Rhett at his best.”
“Most Messed Up” also is the most cohesive batch of songs to ever appear on an Old 97’s album, Hammond said.
“The previous albums flow into each other,” he said. “But this one is a singular snapshot of someone’s life.”
Being from Texas, Old 97’s are part of a rich musical history populated by dozens of great songwriters, including Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Will Jennings, Guy Clark, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Lyle Lovett.
Hammond places bandmate Miller among the best of Texas.
“Rhett’s my favorite songwriter among the writers I grew up with in the Dallas scene,” he said. “And I think he’s the best songwriter in Texas. He outdoes every other one of them. It’s really amazing to see what he does.
“There’s certain songwriting that seems far away in the distance,” Hammond explained. “Rhett’s songwriting is so illuminated. It’s so present in the room. It’s hard to be another songwriter in a band with him. The next-door neighbors are always Rhett Miller. It’s a high bar.”
Twenty-one years into Old 97’s’ long run, the band hasn’t lost its zeal for performing or the road.
“It works well because we do these tours and then we go off to our other lives,” Hammond said. “But we know bands that live on top of each other all year long. That gets hard on them. You’re roommates when you travel. People have to figure out how to be roommates and feel good enough to create things together.
“But when we get together, we have a lot of fun. When it’s time to end the tour, we always leave feeling good about each other.”