OLD 97’s
Hitchhike to Rhome (20th Anniversary Edition)
Omnivore Recordings

Although it was never as big in the mainstream as “Outlaw” country in the ’70s — let alone as media-hyped and commercially powerful as the grunge explosion ushered in by Nirvana and Pearl Jam — there was a period in the early ’90s when the burgeoning “alternative country” scene was producing some of the most exciting young bands and records of the era. By decade’s end many of those bands would mellow with maturity into “Americana,” but in their prime they wore their punk roots as unabashedly as their folk and country influences, carrying on the torch of bands like X, Jason & the Scorchers and Rank & File that pioneered the insurgent country sound before them in the ’80s. Uncle Tupelo and Ryan Adams’ Whiskeytown invariably get cited as the movement’s biggest names, but no band exemplified the spirit of the alt-country boom better than the Dallas-born Old 97’s. And though they’d go on to make bigger and better records (from 1997’s Too Far to Care to 2014’s Most Messed Up), their gutsy and irreverent 1994 debut, Hitchhike to Rhome, still sounds as vibrant, inspired and fun today as it did the day it was released. In fact, it now sounds even better, with the original master tapes given a subtle but loving brand new mix for this deluxe 20th anniversary reissue, which is supplemented by a 12-track bonus disc of band demos and even a handful of songs recorded by frontman Rhett Miller and bassist Murry Hammond before guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples completed the Old 97’s lineup that’s still intact today. For longtime fans, those bonus tracks are the real jewels of this edition, especially the sparse but still enthralling “demo cassette” versions of “St. Ignatius” and “Stoned” (the latter possessing an almost haunted vibe) and a wonderfully raw-boned, previously unissued country-psychedelia take on “Dancing with Tears.” As for the first disc, well, there’s a reason why gems like “Doreen” and “4 Leaf Clover” and the Hammond-sung cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” remain such enduring fan favorites and staples in the band’s setlist: these Old 97’s were barreling along at full creative steam from the very beginning, making Hitchhike to Rhome the kind of time capsule that feels as though it was only buried yesterday, not 20 years ago. — KELLY DEARMORE

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