The Old 97’s are one of the few bands that have never really put out a bad record. Over the past two decades the Texas four-piece has danced between British Invasion, punk, and country—sometimes fully immersing themselves in each—while always playing it catchy and clever.
And that makes choosing the best 12 songs from the band’s catalog a challenge. But we did it. And we did it full well knowing that even if Old 97’s fans don’t necessarily agree, they’ll probably look at this list and say, “Yep, those are pretty great songs.”
Plus, we even got guitarist/vocalist Rhett Miller and bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond to sound off on a few of our picks, and tell us the stories behind them. This list pairs well with whiskey, so pour a little out and check out the 12 best Old 97’s songs.
Written around the time of the band’s 1994 debut Hitchhike to Rhome, “Ivy” finally made it on to a record 17 years later. Another woman’s name in the title, and another failed relationship. “Ivy” has the classic Old 97’s shuffle, another fantastic Ken Bethea riff, and boasts perhaps one of Rhett Miller’s best lines: “I keep turning up The Wedding Present/ You’re too tired to turn me down.”
Written about a friend of the band who was killed by a drunk driver, “No Mother” is saddest song in the Old 97’s catalog. It’s also the prettiest. Unlike the band’s better-known jaunty numbers, this one creeps along at a funeral procession pace. Miller says that was intentional. “That song does break one cardinal rule of Old 97’s,” he explains, adding, “When we have a sad song we usually try to make it sound happy. And vice versa. If you double up, sad song with sad treatment, it can be too much. In the case of that song, I think we wanted it to be too much.”
This is another slow sad one from Murry Hammond that comes off as a little esoteric, but one in which he says is quite specific. “The subject is the one that got away. Mine had an uncanny knack for orbiting back over my world through accident and circumstance. As a satellite, she was out of reach, and as the lyric goes, in that satellite rode a star—‘star’ as in ‘famous.’ She was, and still is, a star.” The song was also accompanied by the Old 97’s best video, which features air-guitar champion Fatima “Rockness Monster” Hoang.
One of the great, unsung murder ballads, “The Other Shoe” paints a vivid picture of a cheating woman who gets done in. “I had always really wanted to write a murder ballad, but I’ve got to say, it freaked me out a little bit,” Miller says. “I don’t think I’m cut out to be singing about murder every night on stage. I definitely decided after this song to never again feature violence towards women in a song.” The Old 97’s recorded a version with the late, great Waylon Jennings in 1996, which was eventually released in 2013.
One of the classic Old 97’s characters, Victoria Lee “lived in Berkeley ‘til the earthquake shook her loose,” and now lives in Texas “where nothing ever moves.” She likes her prescription drugs and she seems to like the narrator—for now, anyway. The opening guitar is now signature and classic, and the song gets even rowdier live.
A fan-favorite live, and the sad indicator an Old 97’s show has come to an end. “Timebomb” is a full-on punk rock burner, whose steam-train tempo chugs even faster in concert. The character Celeste was inadvertently shoehorned into the song, and the rest, as they say, is Old 97’s lore. “We were staying in Pasadena at a friend’s house, and I promised his young teenage daughter I would dedicate a song to her at our show,” says Miller. “A girl I knew from Texas showed up out of nowhere to the gig wearing a wedding dress and acting like a stalker. It freaked me out, and I forgot to dedicate a song to our friend’s daughter. So as a consolation I used her name, Celeste, in the song that I was working on the next morning. It just so happened that the song turned out to be one of our most-loved songs.”
Similar to the excellent “Ray Charles,” in which the song’s breakup occurs during “Georgia On My Mind,” the summer fling in “Melt Show” begins… well, at a Melt show. Miller’s roommate at the time Clark Vogeler (now with the Toadies) played in the titular band. “I just thought it was fun to put him in my song,” Miller explains. “I like putting my friends in my songs. That’s why Robert keeps reappearing.” “Melt Show” might be the most throttling punk song the 97’s have ever done.
Satellite Rides produced some serious power pop bangers, and the early shuffle of “Buick City Complex” gives way to a great riled-up, catchy chorus. Of course, the massive, Flint, Michigan-based automobile plant is only part of this song’s narrative. “I’d read in the local paper that GM was closing down their Buick City plant,” says Miller. “Of course my mind, working the way it does, turned it into a pickup story set in a bar.”
With a sly Raymond Carver reference and a drunken rumba swing, “What We Talk About” is the raw rocker of Fight Songs in which the “bad mood walks like ants across your plates.” It’s a deep cut that needs to cut loose a little more often. Miller agrees. “I wish we played this song more. I think it’s pretty cool. It definitely came from the same place that a lot of songs on that record emanated from—a lousy relationship. Classic song fodder.”
It’s Murry Hammond’s turn for heartbreak on this closer from 1999’s slick and pop-friendly Fight Songs. “It was a toxic relationship and, predictably, not a good breakup,” says Hammond. “But after all the pain and emotion of tearing it apart, I felt a simple moment of compassion and empathy for both of us. I felt a kindness toward her and tried to put that into words. She was a valuable and great human being, but one I would never know again. The girl who’s moving on.” Some of the Old 97’s best moments come when Miller is providing backing harmonies to Hammond’s smooth and sturdy baritone. And this song’s sparseness allows their vocals and the sadness to come through.
“Big Brown Eyes” is always a crowd-pleaser live, and a classic sad-sack track. The Old 97’s re-recorded the song for their major-label debut Too Far To Care, giving it a little extra umph. Extra points if you get the “Time and Temperature” reference. I got issues… yeah.
The Old 97’s have a few songs you could call signature, but “Barrier Reef” is tops. Ken Bethea’s opening riff is twangy, sophisticated and immediately recognizable. And Miller is at is lyrical best, both smart-alecky and self-depreciating. “My heart wasn’t in it, not for one single minute/ When I went through the motions with her, her on top and me on liquor,” he sings. Yeah, what’s so great about “Barrier Reef”? Everything.