Old 97's 2024
Photo: Jason Quigley / Missing Piece Group

Old 97’s ‘American Primitive’ Sports Hits and Misses

Old 97’s American Primitive features some of their most vital work since their first decade as a group, but it’s front-loaded with the hits.

American Primitive
Old 97's
ATO Records
5 April 2024

Outside of Wilco, classic alternative county artists do not receive much recognition these days. Some have had significant lineup changes (Drive by Truckers) or genre variations (Neko Case, Alejandro Escovedo); others have achieved legendary status (Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams); still others are severely limited by disintegration or death (Blue Mountain, the Bottle Rockets, Magnolia Electric Co.). Of course, there are those we no longer discuss (Ryan Adams, Sun Kil Moon).    

Yet, some artists release an album every few years with much the same ambition and increasingly less fanfare. A few of those bands include the Jayhawks, Lucero, Son Volt, and one of the best alt-country acts to emerge from Texas, Old 97’s. Now 30 years removed from their debut album Hitchhike to Rome (1994) and 27 since their high-water mark Too Far To Care (1997), it’s not surprising many listeners have moved on. After all, the distance from “Timebomb” to today is a Jimi Hendrix lifetime away.  

American Primitive, the 14th studio album from Old 97’s, retains the classic lineup of Rhett Miller (vocals, guitar), Ken Bethea (guitars), Murry Hammond (bass), and Philip Peeples (drums), with guest appearances from Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5). It features some of their most vital work since their first decade as a group. Miller said in their press release, “As much as I want us to calm down and grow up, the songs that felt right for this record were mostly big and loud and brutal and dirty.” Unfortunately, it also includes their tendency to jump to different styles with odd timing and to frontload the hits, which makes it just another above-average mid to late-career album.

The album starts with a handful of excellent songs with varying intensity levels. “Falling Down” describes the world as a modern-day apocalypse, with less of everything, including patches of green grass and sycamore trees in favor of electrical wire and crumbling interstates. Miller sings: “You’ve gotta dance like the world is falling around you / Because it is.” It hits with the same urgency as some of their better work and with relevant themes to boot.

“Somebody” is a burner that sounds like Okkervil River at their most unruly; “American Primitive” is a rollicking number that begs empathy for somebody living with a partner clearly unequipped (i.e., the speaker); and “Where the Road Goes” is a showstopper about somebody who maybe should have died and didn’t. The lasting sentiment is, “I’m so glad you decided to stick around.” It is something to which we can all relate.

As demonstrated by these songs, including “Magic”, Old 97’s can still throw down, and with enough force, they might combust. On American Primitive, however, there are some question marks that can only be explained by complacency or boredom. “Honeypie” is jarring, especially upon first listen. It’s ramshackle and loose but falls back on a hackneyed country gotcha about how any pet name will do (except “Old Lady”). “By the End of the Night” lacks conviction, “Masterpiece” was meant for 1990s alternative radio, “Chased the Setting Sun” is best left for rodeo night, and “The World” could use some context.

There is no doubt that Old 97’s have continued to hone their craft into the 21st century, and with American Primitive, they have included some soon-to-be classic songs in their catalog. Some outliers will become favorites for the most devoted fans and concertgoers—perhaps even you or me. The lasting hope is that as we doff our hats to these Americana stalwarts, their opportunity to be relevant again doesn’t pass them by.    

RATING 6 / 10