Fifteen years ago, the release of Too Far to Care was a defining moment for Rhett Miller and the Old 97's.
The album was the major-label debut for the genre-bending alt-country quartet. It endures today as a fan favorite.
When the 97's do live shows, songs from Too Far invariably pepper the set lists. And the band closes virtually every concert with Timebomb, the record's opening number, a high-energy crowd pleaser about the "stick-legged girl" stuck on Miller's brain.
If the 97's didn't play Timebomb, longtime fans wouldn't necessarily rush the stage demanding refunds. But they'd surely wonder what Miller & Co. were suddenly thinking.
"That album holds a special place in people's hearts," says Miller, the singer-songwriter who formed the band in North Texas in 1992 with bassist-vocalist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples. "Fan reaction to that record has always been so positive and sweet and cool."
That's why the Old 97's are celebrating Too Far's 15th anniversary.
Their 30-city Too Far to Care Tour brings them to the Dallas House of Blues at 9 p.m. Aug. 24. They'll play the entire album, first song to last, and then they'll move on to some other favorites.
"I suppose we could have waited for the 20th anniversary, a nice round number," Miller says. "But who knows what will happen in those intervening years? So why not just get out there and do it now?"
Why not, indeed.
Miller talked by phone from his farm in upstate New York as he and the guys were gearing up to get back on the road.
Beyond it being your commercial breakthrough, how meaningful is this album to you?
I think it caught us at a particular moment, that beautiful moment after being wined and dined by all the major record labels and us realizing that we had made it, but before the kind of crushing realities and commercial pressures that come with the big deal.
We never fell prey too much to that, never really felt like we were just salesmen, but it was not on our radar at all when we were making Too Far. At that time, we thought we were the kings of the world.
When you listen to the album today, is there anything you'd like to change?
There's one song called Holy Cross that I can't believe we didn't put on the record. But it's going to be on the re-release [a remastered version to be released by the Omnivore Recordings label Oct. 9]. I really love that song. It's my mom's favorite song.
But our A&R guy talked us out of it. In his liner notes for the re-release, he has a P.S. where he says, 'I can't believe I talked them out of it.' I don't know why we let ourselves get scared out of it. But that said, I love the record and I'm proud of it and there's very little I would ever want to change.
How cool and gratifying is it that the audience at live shows seems to know every word from every song?
It feels good. It's always a big moment in Big Brown Eyes when I sing, 'I got issues,' and everyone yells out, 'Yeah!' Also on Barrier Reef, when I get to the part, 'My name's Stewart Ransom Miller, I'm a serial lady killer,' and everybody jumps in with me. It's funny to me that the big sing-along moments are some of the most personal for me.
How will you address this issue: If Timebomb opens the show because it's the first song on Too Far to Care, what's the leading candidate to become your new closer?
I love the idea of opening with Timebomb, then doing the 45 minutes of Too Far, then doing 45 minutes of other stuff, then getting an encore and coming back out and doing three songs and finishing with Timebomb as well. Why not play it twice? That's my thought.
You're doing double duty on this tour. You'll also open the evening as a solo act. Why do you push yourself?
Before Those Darlins come out and do their thing, I'll do 20, 25 minutes from my new record, The Dreamer, to raise awareness that I've got this new record out. But mostly it's because I like to work. If I'm going to be away from my family, I want to be working as many hours of every day as possible.
How do you decide which songs that you write will be Old 97's material and which are solo Rhett Miller tunes?
The simple answer is that I play them for the guys. If the guys like them, then they're 97's songs. That's sort of how it all started for me making solo records. They kept saying no to all this stuff. I'd say, 'But I think that's a good song.'
Eventually I had a big enough pile that I went to them and said, 'Guys, you've got to let me make solo records, too.' And they're fine with that. They understand that I've got to get my ya-yas out for the songs they're not into. Still, it always surprises me which songs they like and which ones they don't.
Is it true that Bethea originally rejected Timebomb, even though it became one of his biggest guitar showpieces?
Yeah, when I first brought him Timebomb, Ken said, 'I don't know about that song, man.' But you've got to remember, when I wrote these songs, they don't sound like what winds up on the record. It's just a guy strumming an acoustic guitar when I first play it for the guys.
Then you throw on a big guitar riff and get Philip rocking and it becomes a much bigger thing. But to this day, I laugh. Of all the songs, Ken balked at that one. To this day, if I have a song I feel strongly that he should give a chance, I remind him, 'Hey, remember, you didn't like Timebomb either!'