One of the most enduring bands in the alt-country community, the Old 97's merged power pop melodies with classic country feel, anchored by the rock-solid twang of guitarist Ken Bethea and the emotive vocals of , whose tales of romantic misadventure hit a sweet spot between yearning and swagger. The band first made a nationwide splash with their second album, 1995's Wreck Your Life, while their major-label debut, 1997's Too Far to Care, revved up their rock & roll leanings and punched up the melodic hooks. Despite positive reviews and a loyal following, the band never quite broke through to mainstream success, and in the 2000s, they left the major labels to return to the independents. The Old 97's soldiered on to become alt-country's greatest survivors, playing fiery live shows and releasing spirited albums like 2014's insouciant Most Messed Up and 2020's rollicking but thoughtful Twelfth.
Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond first partnered up in 1989, when Miller enlisted the latter's help in producing his debut solo album, Mythologies. Although six years younger than Hammond, Miller proved to be a dedicated musician as he canvassed the Dallas club circuit, playing a blend of folk and British-styled pop to local audiences. He also displayed a knack for storytelling, having previously earned a creative writing scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College. One year after Mythologies' release, Miller and Hammond teamed up once again, this time as part of the short-lived Sleepy Heroes.
Although the Sleepy Heroes disbanded after issuing one album, the group's mix of pop and Texas-styled twang helped lay the foundation for Old 97's. Continuing to build upon that sound, and linked up with lead guitarist Ken Bethea and recorded a demo tape at the Cedar Creek studio in Austin. Drummer Philip Peeples climbed on board shortly thereafter, and 's childhood obsession with trains inspired the band's new name, which paid homage to the country ballad "Wreck of the Old 97." With their lineup intact, Old 97's released the debut album Hitchhike to Rhome in 1994. It garnered positive reviews and began to build the group's alt-country fan base, which they consolidated on the album's follow-up, Wreck Your Life. Issued in 1995 by the newly formed -- a label that would also launch the alt-country careers of and -- Wreck Your Life presented Old 97's as a sharp, eclectic country-rock outfit with a pinup-worthy frontman. Such positive attention led to a major-label deal with , which hoped to translate the band's underground buzz into mainstream success.
Old 97's made their debut in 1997 with Too Far to Care, a muscular album that balanced the band's Texas traditionalism and pop leanings. Many publications placed the group among the leaders of the alt-country movement, and Old 97's toured extensively in support, joining the Lollapalooza tour that summer and playing alongside for a series of shows sponsored by magazine. Arriving two years later, 1999's Fight Songs offered another polished, pop-friendly set of songs, allowing the band to sell out 1,500-seat venues during their return to the road.
By this time, had moved to Los Angeles and shed the thick, '50s-style glasses that had become a major part of his image. He and also began performing in an informal side project dubbed the Ranchero Brothers, although a proposed album never materialized. Instead, the musicians returned their focus to Old 97's, releasing another pop-influenced record with 2001's Satellite Rides. took a temporary leave after its release to work on a solo power pop record, The Instigator, which was released in late 2002. A period of relative inactivity followed, as the bandmembers found themselves in different cities, with several of them starting families.
The hiatus ended in 2004 with the release of Drag It Up, whose subsequent tour featured prominently on the double-disc live album Alive & Wired. Afterward, returned to his solo career with 2006's The Believer, which found the frontman experimenting with strings and orchestral arrangements. Old 97's returned to the studio once again in 2008, though, this time holing up in their native Dallas to help channel the energy of their earlier records. The move worked, and the resulting album, Blame It on Gravity, delivered some of the band's strongest songs in years. While touring the country in support, launched his own solo career, packaging a wealth of old-timey gospel ballads and locomotive imagery onto the album I Don't Know Where I'm Going But I'm on My Way. also found time to release a solo album, 2009's self-titled Rhett Miller, which appeared one year before the ninth Old 97's record, The Grand Theatre, Vol. 1. Originally intended as a double album, The Grand Theatre was followed in mid-2011 by a companion record, The Grand Theatre, Vol. 2.
In 2012, Old 97's released an archival project via , an expanded and remastered reissue of Too Far to Care that included a bonus disc of demos recorded before the project went into the studio. (The demos also received a stand-alone release on vinyl as They Made a Monster: The Too Far to Care Demos.) That same year, released a limited-edition EP for Record Store Day that featured two songs the group recorded in 1996 in collaboration with ; the EP was reissued in 2013 simply as Old 97's & Waylon Jennings. In 2014, the band released their first album for , a fiery effort titled Most Messed Up, and continued their series of back-catalog projects with by issuing a remixed, remastered, and expanded edition of their debut LP, Hitchhike to Rhome.
In the last weeks of 2016, Old 97's announced the upcoming release of a new album, Graveyard Whistling, which was issued by in February 2017. The record included guest vocals by Brandi Carlisle on the song "Good with God," and songwriting contributions from and . November 2018 saw the release of a solo set, The Messenger, as well as the first-ever Christmas album from Old 97's, Love the Holidays; both were issued by . After the group's members struggled with major life events -- Philip Peeples spent weeks in the hospital after fracturing his skull, Ken Bethea had surgery on his spine after losing control of motor functions in his hand, and gave up alcohol -- they celebrated their longevity as a band and the privilege of still playing their music on their 12th album, 2020's suitably titled Twelfth.
In September 2022, 's eighth solo studio album, the playfully eccentric The Misfit, was released by . Two months later, filmmaker James Gunn debuted a seasonal television spinoff from the Guardians of the Galaxy film franchise, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, for the Disney+ streaming network. The Old 97's were invited to appear on the show, and they contributed a new seasonal tune, “I Don’t Know What Christmas Is (But Christmastime Is Here)," co-written by Gunn and and performed by the band decked out in alien makeup. They also backed Kevin Bacon for another tune on the show, "Here It Is, Christmastime," which they originally recorded for the Love the Holidays album. ~ Andrew Leahey & Mark Deming, Rovi