By Cindy Royal

(LSM Aug/Sept 2010/vol. 3 – Issue 5)

After playing together for 17 years, you might think the Old 97’s would slow down a bit. Not a chance. The Dallas-formed quartet is still going strong. They just finished up a coast-to-coast summer tour behind the Mimeograph EP — a four-song covers project including a very Stones-y rendition of “Rocks Off” and R.E.M.’s “Driver 8” — and are readying their forthcoming full-length, The Grand Theatre (New West). The band’s eighth studio album is a sprawling 20-plus song project, that will be released in not one, but two, volumes: Volume One hits stores this fall and Volume Two will follow next year.

While other bands from the early ’90s alt-country scene have disbanded and reformed (Wilco and Son Volt continue from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo and Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary of Whiskeytown carry on with solo careers), the Old 97’s are still at it with their original membership: Rhett Miller (lead singer and primary songwriter), Murry Hammond (bass), Ken Bethea (lead guitar) and Philip Peeples (drums). Always just slightly under the mainstream radar, the 97’s have built a loyal fan following and reputation for high energy live performances. Miller and his bandmates keep churning out crowd-pleasing material with the same youthful enthusiasm outing after outing, each time pushing the envelope of the genre they helped define, relying on the bonds created by working together for the better part of two decades.

“The reason the 97’s have stayed together so long is that we all know what to expect at this point out of each other, and we all know that whatever the other one come up with is going to be somewhere in the ballpark of what we love,” Miller explains. “After this many years, you’ve got to trust these guys. Right?”

The new album was produced by Salim Nourallah, who’s now practically an honorary fifth member of group, after working with the 97’s on their last outing, 2008’s Blame It on Gravity, as well as Miller’s most recent, self-titled solo CD, at his Pleasantry Lane Studio in Dallas. To change things up a bit, the band booked the legendary Dallas venue Sons of Hermann Hall for pre-production, and then recorded and mixed tracks in the picturesque and “exotic” backdrop of Austin’s Hill Country at Texas Treefort Studio. “Leave it to us to consider Austin exotic, but it is,” Miller says with a laugh, referring to the hawks and locusts that encircled his treehouse-like accommodations.

Miller looks back on Blame It on Gravity as somewhat of a turning point for the group, an exploration of maturing as a band and shedding some of the self doubt of youth. The new record expands on that theme. “It’s like Blame It on Gravity on steroids,” Miller says. “It’s bigger, louder, cooler and weirder.”

Miller wrote most of the new songs while on tour opening for Steve Earle in Europe last year, dealing with the juxtaposition of cultures in the U.S. and U.K., his own ancestors having migrated to Texas from England and Ireland seven generations ago. The geography influenced the title (the album’s namesake is a venue in Birmingham, England, where Miller performed during the tour), the topics (letters home, the spelling of words like “theatre”) as well as the sound, being surrounded by Brit-rock history in the setting that spawned legendary groups like the Beatles and the Clash.

All of the above made Nourallah, who is known for his adoration of those aforementioned British icons, a logical choice to enlist for this epic project. He welcomed the opportunity to work outside of the confines of a traditional CD, even with the budget and timeline of one. “There are all kinds of things that this band does, and it’s fun to take off the shackles of the traditional 10-song record where you start thinking, ‘that doesn’t fit or it’s a little too out there,’” Nourallah says. “There is no ‘out there’ on this record. We’ve got more than 20 songs, and I think there are going to be things that appeal to the fans and hopefully some things that appeal to new people.”

With provocative titles like “Every Night is Friday Night Without You” and “Let the Whiskey Take the Reins,” The Grand Theatre promises to showcase the clever phrasing that has sustained Miller and the rest of the band throughout their career — simply put, there’s no one better at conveying drunken belligerence with intelligence and sharp wit. Other songs will show a more delicate side, like “The Beauty Marks” and “Love Is What You Are.”

“There’s everything on it,” Nourallah says. “I’ve really fallen in love with this collection of songs and this record. I don’t like to say more, but maybe more than any collection of songs that I’ve ever worked with. It’s really stunning to me.”

The Grand Theatre: Volume I is scheduled for an Oct. 12 release, with the second volume planned for mid-2011. Expect a promotional tour featuring Miller and Hammond this fall, then a full band tour later in the year and into 2011. “I think it will be a big deal,” Miller says contemplatively. “I think 2011 is going to be an important year for us. I feel like it’s something of a watershed moment in our band.”