It’s the collaboration you never knew you wanted, but makes perfect sense now that it’s happened: Old 97s, one of the best bands to ever come out of Dallas, and Roger Staubach, legendary Cowboys’ quarterback. A classic in-game photo of Staubach adorns the cover of the band’s upcoming record Twelfth.
Yes, it’s the twelfth LP from Old 97s (consisting of Rhett Miller, Ken Bethea, Murray Hammond and Philip Peeples), and Staubach wore the number 12. But Miller, the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, explained in a recent interview with American Songwriter that there was something more at play. “Growing up in Texas, seventh-generation Texan, my Dad and I weren’t able to bond over much, like a lot of kids in Texas, especially arty, weird, sensitive kids like me,” Miller says. “But the only thing we were really able to bond over was football. Those 70s Cowboys, when I was a really little kid, had a great deal of mythical significance to me. When I started thinking about the fact that this was our twelfth album, it sounds flaky, but that vision of Roger Staubach on the cover came to me in a dream one morning, right before we went into the studio in Nashville to make the record. It feels more like it’s a bygone era. And that was before I even realized the significance of a person standing in front of a crowd of 60,000 people jammed in together.”
Today marks the release of “The Dropouts,” the second single from Twelfth. It’s classic Old 97s every step of the way yet pulses with the energy of a band making their debut, with unstoppable musical swagger and Miller’s effortless lyrical eloquence on full display. The song honors society’s underdogs, to whom Miller still feels a kinship despite the band’s success. “I think if I wasn’t hungry, I wouldn’t be able to write the songs that I write,” he says.
“The Dropouts” also features a slew of Miller’s typically quotable couplets. Case in point: “But that’s all right turns out you don’t need wings/When you’ve got whiskey and guitar strings.” Miller says he doesn’t force such pithy sayings, but will include them “if there’s a way to convey something that feels like a real experience, something that feels really internally honest to me, and convey that in a way that sounds good, like with juicy words and fun construction. I’m a big fan of symmetry. Obviously, I was so drawn to this form of art because of the rhymes, the way the rhymes were just endlessly symmetrical and the way that they bounce off of each other.
“If I can build up little lines that pile up on top of each other and make this thing that gets stuck in your head and you want to sing along to it or quote it back to me, it goes back to the idea of music being collaborative. It’s the collaboration between the songwriter and the audience. I’m singing this thing, but I’m trying to make it something that you’ll also want to sing and then we’re singing to each other. And, to me, that’s when it becomes a transcendent experience.”
The fact that we are even hearing Twelfth at all is a minor miracle. It was recorded in Nashville in March amidst the tornados that besieged the city and right before the pandemic shut everything down. On top of that, Miller explained that the album had actually been pushed back from its original January 2019 due date to problems with the original choice for producer and Bethea needing surgery. But, he says, all the delays and obstacles led to a stronger record in the long run.
“if we hadn’t made it when we made it,” Miller explains, “there was a whole slew of songs that wouldn’t be there that I feel like are the crux of the album, including ‘The Dropouts’, including ‘Turn Off The TV.’ ‘I Like You Better’ might be my favorite song on the album and that was the last song that I wrote, like three weeks before we went to Nashville to make the record. We were able to wait as long as we did, even though it goes against everything in my anxiety-riddled artistic personality. I feel like I’m always in a rush. But it made me slow down, let the schedule be what it was, and really great things came out of having to wait.”
Miller also made the decision to eschew any outside co-writers this time around after using them a bit more liberally on the band’s last album, 2017’s Graveyard Whistling. “I think after doing a lot of that (co-writing) the last few years, I was ready to just give myself permission to do stuff that was outside of my comfort zone,” he says. “And I was also ready to actually step up and take ownership of the songs and the things I was saying. I felt like it was important for me to let the voice be my voice rather than a collaborative voice. The worst thing that can happen is it becomes like the lowest common denominator. I’ve got a couple of co-writes over the past 15 years where I felt like this is just me settling. When you’re writing by yourself, there’s no settling. You can fight with yourself and you’re always gonna win and lose. I’m really, really proud of the songs on this record and they do feel like me rather than some version of me filtered through someone else.”
Several songs on the album address Miller’s hard-living ways before he got sober in 2015. He says he needed that span of time before he was ready to tackle those subjects. “It would have hard been a few years ago,” he admits. “I’d gone down the road of drinking and smoking weed and excess to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore. Five years into being sober, I’ve gotten to the point where I can see it with some perspective and it doesn’t hurt as much to look back on it. I’m not missing it, I’m not mad at myself. It’s something that happened. It’s a part of my life. I wouldn’t change it. But I wouldn’t change anything because where I am right now is such a beautiful place with a family that I love and kids that I’m so proud of and a career that I’m so proud of, feeling like I’m still a vital creative person. But it took a little while to get past the pain of the moment that necessitated the sobriety.”
Interestingly enough, the band backloaded some of the darker songs on the album, like “Confessional Boxing” and “Bottle Rocket Baby,” giving Twelfth an intriguing trajectory. “Side Two of the album gets dark,” Miller says with a knowing laugh. “I think about sequencing more than anyone in the band. I thought a lot about this, and I wanted this record to be kind of be a ride. I decided that if we were going to go light, dark, light, dark, it would have been too jarring. I kind of wanted to evolve from this place of really fun and joyous to this place of being dark. And I don’t really know even why that experience felt right. I guess I didn’t want to start dark. I didn’t want people to have to battle through the really weird messed-up moments on this record to get to the joy. I wanted to hook people with the joy and then make them live through the darker moments of the album.”
Miller believes that the end result is something that stands with the band’s best work. “It’s hard to know what the rest of the world is going to think,” he admits. “For me, I’ve had records in the past where I have a lot of concern or fear. I remember Fight Songs was gonna be so different from Too Far To Care, there was a lot of concern in the band about how fans would react. I think that now we’re past the point of living or dying by the fear of how fans will react, because I feel like our fan base is pretty steady. I feel like we’ve built up enough of a catalog that it would take a lot for use to lose the goodwill of our audience.”
“But, at the same time, I don’t believe in bands petering out or getting worse. Not our band, at least. Maybe that’s because our band wasn’t built on some idea of snot-nosed youth as the guiding principle. As this record was being made, I kept thinking this might be the best record we’ve ever done. I was being more generous with myself in the assessment of this recording as it was happening than I pretty much ever am.”
Not only are Old 97s celebrating this landmark record, but they can also boast of a longevity with the same lineup intact that few bands can match. “Murray and I started when I was 15 and it took us eight years of playing together in different lineups,” he says of the trial and error he and Hammond underwent before settling on the quartet that would stick. “We’re not all four the same. There’s very much a complimentary situation. Each of us fills a different role in terms of our personality, in terms of strengths that we bring to the band. But it took us so long, so many tries for Murray and I to find the perfect other two guys. After that, it became about being lucky, but also being constantly proactive about making sure that we know that we love each other, that we trust each other, that we have each other’s backs. It’s like being in improv group, where right before you walk on stage you pat each other on the back and say, ‘I’ve got your back.’ And that’s sort of what it has to be to keep a band together for this long.
“Nobody’s rich. My bandmates have all married pretty well and have made do with solid middle-class lives. I work my ass off doing solo stuff in between band stuff to try and make it so that I can feed my kids and pay my mortgage. But I just see it as a job, and I think all of us see it as a job. And we don’t think that we’re entitled to anything. We all feel like every single time we walk into the studio or walk onto a stage, we have to earn it. Perhaps that sounds self-congratulatory, but that’s what we decided we have to do. We can’t keep doing this unless we really just feel like we’re so lucky to do this, let’s go out and make sure that we deserve it.”