Old 97’s recharge batteries, motor on

Jay Miller

After spotty reception to their last album in 2004, it looked like the Old 97’s, one of the best alternative-country bands, was finished.

A breakup was never officially announced, but the members all became family men and were living in different cities, each pursuing solo projects.

Now the Dallas quartet are back together, with an album many are calling their best, “Blame It On Gravity.”

While the last album, “Drag It Up,” was introspective and even mellow, the band’s latest effort reflects that the foursome has made the transition to being grownups who still want to rock.

“We were all figuring out how to be a band again, after all we went through from 2001 to 2004. It was definitely touch-and-go for a while,” said lead singer Rhett Miller, who lives in Hudson Valley, N.Y., with his wife and two toddlers. “I didn’t personally think we’d ever break up as a band, but I realized that at any time a single member could decide to leave and that would be it.

“But now, there is no baggage, and no negative energy here,” Miller said. “It is, honestly, so much fun. I have said it feels like a second childhood. It feels great to be in a band that feels so vital again, and ready to go out and conquer the world.”

Miller and his three bandmates from the group they began in 1993 – bassist/co-writer Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Phil Peeples – produced one of the year’s most vibrant rock albums. The new disc has full-bore rockers like “The Fool,” “Ride” and “Early Morning” that rank with the best of the Old 97’s impressive catalog. And Hammond has provided one of the more arresting ballads, “The Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue.”

Despite calling himself impatient, Miller said they didn’t rush through this album – and it paid off.

“The audience response has been fantastic,” Miller said. “Usually, when you are touring with new music, it takes awhile for the audiences to catch up to the new songs. But this time we’re looking out there and seeing people singing along with the new ones already, so the album has had an impact.”

The Old 97’s music can also be heard in movies such as “Clay Pigeon” and “The Break Up,” where Vince Vaughn got them a scene playing in a nightclub, Miller said. They’ve also recorded songs for TV shows such as “Scrubs” and “EdTV.”

“I like that stuff, and it seems to come in waves,” Miller said. “I feel like the more times people hear your voice in their world, the more likely they are to accept your work into their iPods or whatever. I like the idea of being asked to write something for a specific thing, too.

Opening this leg of the tour is 81-year-old Charlie Louvin, of the legendary country gospel Louvin Brothers. Charlie Louvin released “Steps to Heaven” last month.

“The fact that he’s opening for us is mind-boggling,” Miller said. “He is a favorite of all of us. We haven’t even met him yet, and I’m just hoping he doesn’t think we’re too loud or crazy.”

Jay N. Miller covers popular music. If you have information or ideas for Jay about the music scene, bookings, recordings, artists etc., send it to him by e-mail to Attn: Music Scene in the subject line.