Tim Mosenfelder, Getty Images Twenty years ago, critics didn't have a name…
- Posted on Apr 18th 2011 1:15PM by Lonny Knapp
Tim Mosenfelder, Getty Images
If, as the saying goes, it takes ten years of hard work to become an overnight success, then Texas quartet Old 97's, hard at it for nearly two decades, should have blown up yesterday.
Alongside Uncle Tupelo, Drive By Truckers and Whiskey Town, they pioneered alt-country but despite next big thing hype, huge commercial success never materialized. Over the past 18 years, the band has released 14 albums, played countless gigs and written hundreds of songs -- all with the same lineup.
On a recent spring afternoon, Spinner caught up with singer Rhett Miller before the band's set at Toronto's Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, a fitting locale to discuss longevity counsdering the country-themed rock bar has been hosting live music for over 60 years.
"The bands we came up with that had a hit song no longer exist," Miller says. "We never had a huge song on the radio, but we still get to play in front of hundreds of people everywhere we go."
As a case study, he offers up fellow Texas band Deep Blue Something whose 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' was a huge hit back in 1995 and one-time label mates Nada Surf who scored big with the Weezer-esque 'Popular' in 1996. Both acts had hugely successful singles, but failed to connect with a follow-up, and eventually faded from sight.
"At the time I was jealous, but in retrospect, I wouldn't trade places with them," he says.
Old 97's, meanwhile, flourished under the radar. Through peaks and valleys, the band just keeps on trucking, backing up consistent albums with stellar live performances.
"Perseverance is our motto. We believe that if we persevere our quality will prevail, " he says.
The band's recent release 'The Grand Theater: Volume One' garnered some of the best reviews of their career. After a bit of a plateau, crowds are growing and on this recent tour the band is selling out in once-weak secondary markets.
"We played to 800 people in Bloomington, Illinois, the other night. It was huge. We are seeing bigger and more excited audiences. Something about it, man, it feels like we are at the right place at the right time."
The crowds are not only getting bigger, but also younger. The influx of young blood could be because some of the songs on the recent album were penned for a decidedly younger audience. A look at the liner notes reveals a shout-out to singer Katy Perry, a fan of the band. Miller actually wrote a few of the album tracks in preparation for an ill-fated collaboration with the pop star -- though he wouldn't reveal which songs.
"The guys made me promise not to tell," he jokes.
Later that night, Old 97's performed for a formidable crowd at the legendary Toronto venue. The band picked country-laced rockers from a vast catalogue and Rhett Miller attacked his acoustic guitar with his signature Townsend-style windmills.
Though in his forties, Miller still rocks the disarming good looks that have made female fans swoon and po-faced music critics write him off as a pretty boy. Perhaps what keeps Miller so youthful is his ongoing quest to attain the one thing that has always been just out of reach: a hit song.
"I always feel pressure to write a better songs. Maybe never having this one song is what keeps us going? It certainly keeps us hungry."