On the twang gang

It was the kind of sudden, vicious act that irreparably changes a venue. On July 25, the Old 97’s were playing the Gypsy Tea Room in Deep Ellum — a once-rundown, now-gentrified Dallas district — when, during the final song of the final encore, audience member David Cunniff chided a few skinheads who were flicking cigarette ashes on a nearby African-American man.

By all eyewitness accounts, his comments were mild — something along the lines of “Hey, man, that’s not cool” — but no sooner had Cunniff spoken than he was quickly and brutally attacked. Two hits, a punch to the face and (according to various reports) either a kick to the head or a boot to the neck — and David Cunniff, a professional contractor with no medical insurance, was paralyzed from the waist down. On Aug. 11, according to a story in the Dallas Morning News, Deputy U.S. Marshals, aided by Dallas police, arrested skinhead Jesse Chaddock in a Long Beach, Calif., apartment, charging him with aggravated assault in the incident.

Rhett Miller, lead singer and guitarist for the Old 97’s, remains audibly upset about the incident a month later, his voice punctuated by small, halting pauses and shaky sighs.

Dallas native Miller says, “When I was coming up, there were only a couple of clubs in Deep Ellum, and at that time it was a pretty dangerous area. But now it’s all built up, they’ve opened up a lot of urban clubs, and there’s been a lot of racial tension. It’s so sad and fucked-up. Nothing like this has ever touched our band. And as a result of it, we’re not going to play in Deep Ellum anymore.”

Far from shying away from what might be callously considered bad publicity, though, the band’s Web site provides news updates on Chaddock’s arrest, as well as plans for a benefit concert in the near future.

But Miller’s right about the attack being out of sync with the band’s music and history. When he speaks about the career arc of the Old 97’s, he sounds at once pleased and surprised to be where he is — surrounded by longtime bandmates, on a new and more comfortable label, and having just released Drag it Up, the group’s most cohesive record since 1997’s Too Far to Care.

Emerging from the rowdier, rockinger branch of the early alt-country movement, the Old 97’s have enjoyed steadily (if incrementally) increasing success since forming in 1993. Two well-received indie albums netted them a deal with Elektra. The band scored a major-label breakthrough with 1997’s Too Far to Care, but that album’s commercial success outshone their remaining three contractual releases. Like fellow Elektra alums They Might Be Giants and Ween, the Old 97’s were a “career band” — a group whose fans could be counted on for modest but reliable support of each record. It was a situation which relieved them of the pressure to deliver huge hits, but by way of balance, the Old 97’s received, as any such act on a major label must, only a small percentage of Elektra’s available energies.

“There were a lot of people at Elektra who we connected with, who championed us,” says Miller. “You don’t stay in one place for eight years without a measure of support. But we knew that our performance was, on a certain level, underwhelming.”

Drag it Up is the group’s debut on seemingly ever-expanding maverick label New West, and it’s a less-aggressively tinkered album than the group’s other recent releases. Power-pop and psychedelic flavors have been traded in for rambling acoustic numbers and bottle-fueled tales of decisions, bad and worse. It’s a sound that will be familiar to their fans, but their recent dabbling in higher production budgets has infused the band’s Texan twang with a more careful attention to pop songcraft. As a result, Drag it Up sounds less expansive than the 97’s recent work, but it also sounds tighter, more focused — a quality that Miller ascribes, in part, to the album’s reliance on first-take performances.

“[Bassist] Murray [Hammond] really had a lot to do with that. He came in with the idea to make the record as if it were 1968 — fewer mikes, fewer takes, fewer tracks. And he was right; that process ended up really capturing the sound of the band. I’m not sure where the feel came from, but there was something about us all being grateful to be back together, being off a major label, without the pressure of expectations or the lack thereof. We were able to go into the studio and say, ‘Hey, we’re a good band, and we’ve got a good history with each other. Let’s not use a lot of production; let’s use that.’”

The Old 97’s perform at the Majestic Theatre (4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit) on Saturday, Sept. 11. For info call 313-833-9700.

Eric Waggoner is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]
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