Old 97's Recording Next Album At Willie Nelson's Studio

Texas rock-country quartet also, for first time, delves into production duties.

Among the brightest lights in alternative country, the Old 97's are heading into the studio this week to begin recording the follow-up to their critically acclaimed 1999 album, Fight Songs.

The Old 97's, based in Los Angeles (singer/songwriter Rhett Miller) and Dallas (everyone else), thought long and hard before choosing Pedernales, Willie Nelson's studio in Luck, Texas.

"Well, we can't record in Dallas, because we have too many friends there. Chicago, the same thing, and L.A., the same thing. New York is too big because of the record labels there," Miller said.

"So this time, because of the babies and the weddings and the whatnot in the band, we had to be close to Dallas, but we didn't want to be in Dallas. And we're all huge Willie fans."

The 97's recorded Fight Songs, which featured Miller's poppy "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)" (RealAudio excerpt), at Kingsway, the storied, "haunted" New Orleans studio of Daniel Lanois (U2, Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball). They will enter a new world at Pedernales.

Change Of Venue

"This studio is unbelievable," Miller said. "Danny Lanois' studio was unbelievable, but in a different way. It was like a 300-year-old mansion, and this is like a posh resort atop a hill in central Texas. The tee for hole one of the golf course is right outside the front door of the studio. I'm going to learn to play golf."

Miller, bassist/singer Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethen and drummer Philip Peeples also will be learning about record producing at Pedernales. They will be co-producing the album, which is tentatively scheduled for release on Elektra in the first quarter of 2001, with Wally Gagel, who produced the band's '97 Elektra debut, Too Far To Care.

"For the first time, with all due respect to Wally, we insisted that it be a co-production, because we have a ton of ideas," Miller said. "We've done a lot of preproduction, just the four of us. And we all feel really confident with the hours we've logged in the studio and our vision. If all goes according to plan, it'll be a joint effort."

Recently, joint efforts have been the exception rather than the rule for the Old 97's, whose early material, including Miller's "Ray Charles" (RealAudio excerpt) and Hammond's "Sound of Running," has just been revived as Early Tracks by Bloodshot Records, the label that released the band's 1995 breakthrough, the honky-tonky Wreck Your Life.

Miller, 29, who once recorded a solo album while still in high school, has been performing on his own in recent days. He opened several shows for Chris Isaak and took part in a songwriters' showcase at Los Angeles' ultrahip Club Largo ("I'm glad to be part of that little world," he said) that also featured Elliott Smith, Jon Brion and Fiona Apple.

Other Opportunities

"There's a shift in the band a little bit, making room for other projects. Murry, the bass player, and I are just finishing up an album by our alter ego, the Ranchero Brothers, which hopefully will come out in the fall," Miller said.

"The guys know there's room for all this stuff. Eventually, I'll make a solo record; I know that'll happen. Because I have songs that just don't work within the machinery of the band."

Miller insists he has plenty of time to think about making that solo album.

"I have nothing but [time]," he said. "And I don't think the band worries, because they know that the priority is the record we're about to go make. And that that's the record the major label's sinking the money into, and that's the record all of the really great songs are earmarked for. And that's the record we're all focusing our lives on at the moment.

"The only time it ever really becomes a problem is, like, when we were on the radio the other day. We were doing an interview, and the DJ started accusing me of mutiny and abandonment: 'When are you going to go solo and give up on the guys?' 'I don't know. Calm down.'

"But everybody's really cool. We've been together for so long, and we've established an open line of communication. We've had to, to stay together," Miller said.

The Old 97's formed in Dallas in 1993 and took their name from the bluegrass standard "Wreck of the Old 97," written by David G. George about a fatal 1903 train wreck near Danville, Va.