New approach for Old 97's

Frontman Miller's embrace of salty lyrics unlikely to be played unedited on radio




If you go

• What: Old 97’s, in concert.

• When: 8:30 p.m. May 13.

• Where: Wonder Ballroom, 128 N.E. Russell St., Portland.

• Cost: $23 to $25 through Ticketfly, 877-435-9849 or

• Information: 503-284-8686 or

For 21 years, the Old 97's — one of the trailblazers of the entire Americana music scene — have been putting out consistently good albums, playing their hearts out on stage and being rewarded with a respectable and loyal following.

The band has deserved better — more popularity, more airplay, even more acclaim for its unvarnished blend of punkish rock and hard-twanging country. But frontman Rhett Miller is happy where things stand with his band — and believes major stardom might have been a problem for the band.

"I think if at some point we'd had the kind of huge hit that changed everybody's lifestyle and took all of the sort of monetary pressure off of the work (we could have become complacent)," Miller said in a late-April phone interview.

"I think that could have spelled the end of me as a writer who's constantly searching for the next truth or the next great two-and-a-half-minute pop song. It would have perhaps spelled the end of my band and our work ethic, and our just desire to prove wrong the people that don't believe we can do this for real."

The Old 97's sound plenty motivated on their new album, "Most Messed Up." In fact, it's perhaps the best album in a career that has featured 10 studio albums — many of which were better than good.

That said, chances are the new Old 97's album, "Most Messed Up," won't turn the group into stars, either. At least in the unedited form, the new songs are unlikely to be played on the radio thanks to the frequent use of F-bombs and other salty language and some unquestionably adult themes.

The sort of candor and colorful language littered throughout "Most Messed Up" is a new twist for singer/guitarist Miller, the band's primary songwriter.

What he and bandmates — bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Philip Peeples — have created is a musically raucous look at the ups and downs of the rock and roll lifestyle that's often funny, frequently dark, and above all, unusually authentic.

Being willing to be blunt and use all variations of F-bombs and other expletives — a move that brings a gritty authenticity to the songs on "Most Messed Up" — didn't come easy for Miller, who admitted he was always concerned with pleasing others and making good impressions. But a songwriting session with Nashville-based tunesmith John McElroy sent Miller down the path that eventually produced the dozen songs on "Most Messed Up."

McElroy offered Miller the observation that "I think your audience would really like it if you walked out on stage and said (explicative)."

"There were two things in that suggestion that he made," Miller said. "There was the suggestion that you give up the idea of properness. And then there's also the suggestion that it's important to consider what the audience would like, and not in any kind of calculated swarmy way. I'm not going to try to write hit songs or become Justin Bieber. But our audience, what does our audience appreciate? What would they really like, and it occurred to me I had already written the song 'Wasted,' and that's sort of a thesis statement about this life as a choice that you make to live this crazy, circus sort of Peter Pan existence, where you never grow up and you go from town to town, shaking your ass for money. I thought a lot about that."

Miller and McElroy put that idea to practice, writing the song "Nashville," a fairly dark song leavened by some vicious humor. Miller was energized by what was starting to take shape.

"The idea that I could really write both honestly and specifically about this life and this lifestyle and this career was wildly liberating. It was so great," Miller said. Other than a few overdubs and some guitar and vocal parts added by guest Tommy Stinson of the Replacements, "Most Messed Up" was recorded live in the studio, giving the album the raw and rowdy feel it deserved.

The band figures to play several songs from "Most Messed Up," now that the album has been released. Miller is confident the new songs will work well within a set that he expects could include upwards of 30 songs.

"We've had a few records (in the past) where the majority of the new songs from the record were quieter, more contemplative," Miller said. "Those are a lot harder to plop into the set and they're a lot less fun to pull out as a new song on crowd. So this record's going to be a lot easier to integrate into the set, not only because the songs are fun, but also because the songs sonically really harken back to some of our earliest stuff (from albums like) 'Hitchhike to Rhome' and 'Too Far to Care.'"