Twenty years on, the Old 97’s see their indie debut re-released in deluxe packaging by Omnivore. It’s worth the plunge.
In the event of any doubt, let the record show that the Old 97s -- Rhett Miller, Ken Bethea, Murray Hammond, and Philip Peeples -- arrived in this world fully formed. Well, that can’t be true, of course, but the document that is Omnivore’s re-release of their debut record Hitchhike to Rhome generates that impression, particularly through its second cd, which includes the four tracks comprising the self-released cassette that preceded the album and an assortment of eight additional demos cut during its recording.
That four-song self-recorded cassette contains two of the best songs that would appear on their formal debut: “St. Ignatious" and “Stoned". Listening to these earlier versions, one hears all the characteristics that would later define the mature, road-tested band. “St. Ignatius" lopes along confidently, with Hammond’s shuffling bass and Peeples’ scuffling drums forming a solid foundation for Bethea’s honky tonk leads. On this and the early version of “Stoned" Miller already presents himself as an expressive singer and wry wordsmith. Even the one track that didn’t find its way onto a later Old 97’s album, “Making Love With You", features the killer line “Well I’d say you’re on my mind, but I’m not the thinking kind." Any band capable of leaving this on the cutting room floor is either overburdened with good material or incapable of understanding their strengths. The Old 97’s have always known, and maximized, their strengths.
Fans more familiar with their Bloodshot or Elektra releases and who missed this collection the first time around should take advantage of Omnivore’s generous and handsome re-release. The packaging itself is in keeping with the label’s high standard. The two-CD set includes ample archival photographs and reflective liner notes from Ken Bethea, and vinyl collectors will want to grab the translucent orange double-LP limited edition while it lasts. Though including only six of the 12 bonus cuts featured on the bonus CD, the vinyl release includes a download card to make up the difference.
More important, of course, than the trappings is the music itself. The re-mixing by Rip Rowan brings this early album up to par with the band’s later work. Old 97’s have always been a group that, while appreciated for their raw live energy, knows how to make a studio work in their favor. Some listeners have viewed this characteristic of the band critically, but to my ears their ability to bring studio sheen to their albums without adding any unnecessary fuss has always been a strength. Their clarity on record has always only added to the intensity of those moments when their live shows have gone unhinged.
Hitchhike to Rhome points to all the strengths the band would later demonstrate as they rose to prominence among those alt country acts of the 1990s that defined such an important, if under-appreciated, element of that decade. More stable than the Jayhawks, more sincere than Uncle Tupelo while less self-important than that band’s later offshoots, Old 97’s might be most comparable to early Warner Brothers era R.E.M. in their ability to merge folk authenticity with the plasticity of pop. On this, their first time out of the gate, they bring a straight-faced joy to Cindy Walker’s “Miss Molly", pay their respects to a master with a reverent take on Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried", and otherwise stake their own territory with a collection of songs that match those signposts in both tone and prowess. Miller proves his songwriting chops while describing seeing Jesus in a car wreck brought on by the train wreck of a relationship that is shared with “Doreen". He drives the car metaphor deeper into the desert on “If My Heart Was a Car", breaking the meter of the song to pile on the accusations before his frustrated scream steers us back into the racing beat.
As with Too Far to Care in 2012, Omnivore’s reissue of Hitchhike to Rhome enhances one’s appreciation of the creative work that went into a great album.