Perfect Sound Forever

OLD 97's

KB on the far left

Ken Bethea interview
by Peter Crigler
(February 2022)

The glorious Old 97's came straight out of Texas to make a statement. Although led by singer/songwriter Rhett Miller, the band is a collective and pretty much always has been with bassist/singer Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples. Not country enough for the alt-country movement, not alternative enough for rock radio, the Old 97's blazed their own path and continue to do so. Here's to a band that has never compromised and remains as great as ever.

PSF: When did you first get interested in music?

KB: Well, like anybody, when you're growing up and just into whatever. You know, into music around the house. My sister had some Donny Osmond and Bobby Sherman, The Partridge Family, stuff like pop, early '70's pop music, 8-track player, so I listened to that. Then there was a pretty big change, turning point, for me in ninth grade when I worked for this guy over the summer and he had like rock music. I just didn't really even, you know, I just thought Barry Manilow, that was rock music. You know, just whatever. But he had rock music.

He got me into Kansas, and I really loved "Bohemian Rhapsody," that song, but I didn't really think of it in terms of like, buying the record that that was on or the 8-track, and I bought that, and Queen became my favorite band and in a lot of ways still is. From there I bought a guitar in 12th grade and started learning how to play it.

PSF: How did Old 97's initially come together? I know the guys were in a couple of bands previously together.

KB: Yeah. It was kind of a two-prong thing. Rhett and Murry had met each other in 1986. Rhett was a teenager. Murry was about probably 22. Rhett had kind of a solo thing going on near Dallas. Murry had this band called Peyote Cowboys. It was a kind of psychedelic, Flaming Lips-y kind of band. I used to play with them some. '80's Lips. Then, a little later than that, in '89 or '90, I was in this band, and eventually Philip joined it. It was very surface level. We were called the Sneg Windfields. It was noise. We just yelled. It was noise music. It was fun.

So me and Philip did that together. We got to know each other. I didn't know him that well, but I knew he was a really good drummer. That was the thing. Yeah, yeah, this guy is really good. Because I was not really a guitar player. I just got my guitar.

So in '92, I moved into these brownstone apartments in Dallas. There aren't a ton, but there are these really cool brownstones called Marquis de Cordes, and Murry lived across the hall from me. We just met like that. He and Rhett at that point were playing shows together. They eventually started a band, and Murry produced a solo record, and that came and went.

They went and started a band called Freaky Heroes. It kind of came and went, and at the end they were searching to be in a band. I was working for the defense industry. I had a college degree so I had taken that route. I was hating life, didn't like the job at all, but was making good money. I saved a bunch of money.

We started getting together and playing together like once a week on Thursday nights at Murry's house. We had about 10 songs, and then I quit the job and a couple weeks later, right after that they were going to do this duo gig. Just those two, and they asked me if I wanted to come along.

Rhett played about 10 songs by himself, and then we played under the name Rhett Miller too. These other 10 songs, two or three that are on first record. It was kind of that stuff. It was really fun. My life just immediately--I was like, this is so fun. We started playing once or twice a week, and it just kind of built, and about six months after that we got to the point that we were not going to have a drummer. We were just going to play more acoustic music.

At the time I played a little banjo, Murry played a little banjo, played accordion. And we were going to be eclectic, which is really funny, because there are bands like Avett Brothers or Mumford and Sons that I think play that kind of music now. In 1993, it was just all Nirvana. It was all rock bands. Let's try a drummer out. We tried a couple drummers out just to see, and even though neither drummer fit at all, personality-wise, immediately I saw it sounded amazing. It was like, holy crap. You know what I mean? Instead of being really laid back, it was also something having all this energy.

I kept thinking about Philip. He eventually came to see us one night. I didn't think he would like us, because seriously the band we were in together was noise. And I thought it was probably the type of music that he liked. Noise and noise only. But he was like, this is great. He got all of our demos somewhere, and he said those four songs you have are great. And then he joined the band. I told him, I'll tell you what, give me two days to talk to the other guys, and within a couple weeks he was our drummer.

PSF: How did the band come to develop your sound?

KB: The only thing that was really on purpose was Rhett and Murry, the band before them had been, they always called it British Invasions. I didn't think it sounded like that, but it was definitely--they are Beatles fans, and they write songs like the Beatles. It was to a third-degree Beatle-y, I guess. Production-wise, it was not. That hadn't worked, and Rhett had written a little more loping country songs. One of them being "Desperate Times," which is on our first record. Then when I joined, I'd never been into country at all. Still am not, but I enjoy playing it. I've always enjoyed playing it. I don't like playing metal at all or heavy sorts, but I listen to a lot of heavy music. It's not my thing. So immediately it worked. That part just clicked. Me and Rhett, the first song we played together was "St. Ignatius," and together we worked out these little parts that wound up being on the real song. It was just kind of, what's the word for it? It just happened. It wasn't really a deal of let's do this or let's do that. One day that's the way we sounded.

PSF: What was it like recording the first album?

KB: The first album came along about a year, about 14 months, after we started. By then we had played, that first year, we had probably played 150 shows. A lot of new bands will play six or eight or even maybe 10 shows in a year. We played 150. We always laugh that it was our cavalier days. We played all the time. We played two or three sets every time. We were playing between 30 and 45 songs every time we played. Lots and lots of covers, and we were slowly building the piles of originals to get up to around 30. But around the time we had about 20 and of those 20 we thought that 14 or 15 were really pretty good.

A guy came to us. He had this record label, Big Iron Records. He had released this other record, and he asked us if we wanted to do one with him. He was a fan, and we said sure. And so we went in, and we recorded the whole thing in three days. There are 17 songs on Hitchhike. We knew every song backwards and forwards because we had played them so many times. We just kind of went in there and recorded. I'd never been in a real studio situation so it was a little crazy for me. I had two hours to overdub all the songs. I usually now spend about five days, six days, something like that. Whatever it takes to make it all awesome and cool.

We also don't know the songs now in and out like we did then, because that was the only fun we had, and we played 150 times but probably another 150 times together or more. Or actually way more than that, about 1,000 times together, because we played the songs over and over and practiced. So that's what happened. We did that, and the only thing that made it a little weird was we were going to mix it and do a little bit of overdubs a couple months later, but I broke my arm. So if you listen to the original "Doreen," the original "Hands Off," and the solos on "Wish the Worst," I'm not playing the guitar because my arm is broken. I was going to fix those. Strangely enough, I rebroke the exact same break about two months ago, but I didn't have to wear a cast.

PSF: How did the band to hook up with Bloodshot?

KB: About six months after we recorded Hitchhike, there was a band in Dallas called Killbilly. They were a little bit like us in a way. We were friends of theirs and stuff. They were older than us. Rhett had done a tour with them, just singing backups and playing acoustic guitar, just to fill out the band. It was kind of like bluegrass--they had banjo, stuff like that.

On that tour he wrote "Doreen." That was right before we recorded that record. They knew Nan Warshaw from a long time. Nan was a fan of Killbilly, just pre-Bloodshot because she liked that type of music, and they used to go play Chicago. When Rhett was with Killbilly on this tour, he met Nan. Nan was just charmed by Rhett, thought he was cool.

I remember him coming back telling us that he told her, I have a band called the Old 97's that is way better than this band. This band is good, but my band is way better. I'm the singer, and we're about to record. You should check out the record. So she did, and those guys, Eric and Rob. Eric and Rob and Nan just got super excited over our first record before it came out. They were sent some copies of it. They got us on this kind of cool gig up there in Chicago opening up for Robbie Fulks and a band called Moonshine Willie that was on Bloodshot most days and a band called Freak Water. Really cool. Non-Bloodshot band but they were in league with all of them. We went up there and played on this thing, and it was kind of like a South by Southwest thing that Chicago was trying to get going, so we were the first of these four bands.

The gig was sold out and literally crazy. This had never happened before. We were still playing in Dallas for 20 friends, 30 friends, or maybe 30 friends and 10 people that they brought. We kind of knew everybody that came to see us play. We played the show, the Double Door, which probably held 500 people, and we stole the show. It was crazy. People were getting our autographs. We sold all our shirts, which was probably 20. All of our CD's we brought.

We immediately started going back to Chicago, and we never didn't sell a show out from then on. Every time we'd go back up there, it was crazy. The same kind of thing happened in Dallas too, but it was this crazy weird thing where we would play three or four shows, like St. Louis, Lawrence, whatever, Champaign, and then we played Chicago and it would be packed and everyone knew every word to our songs. It wasn't like that anywhere else. It was this weird thing where it gave us a lot of confidence and this whole idea if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.

I can't tell you how weird it was being in a country band in 1994-95, when everybody wanted to sound like Pearl Jam. Everywhere you went. They all sounded like Pearl Jam. They all sounded like Chili Peppers, but they wanted to be like a quirky band like Ween or The Presidents or They Might Be Giants. Like, all kinds of music. They might be sounding like that. That was the big thing. All the rock bands were booking and playing and on the radio, and then there was us playing country. Even Wilco, whose record came out a little bit after ours, that's still pretty standard rock and roll on their first record, you know.

They were like, well, you guys are going to do another record for Big Iron, and we go, It's not really a label. Some lawyer guy gave us some money. And they said, You wanna do it on Bloodshot? Absolutely.

PSF: What was it like signing with Elektra? Do you feel it was a good thing for the band?

KB: It was great. It was amazing. The only thing that sucked was it caused hard feelings to Bloodshot because they wanted us to stay on Bloodshot, but we didn't consider it. It's totally different being on a major labor--it was a huge record deal, too. It wasn't like some little.... Look at it this way. Our first two records cost about $6,000 combined to make. The first Elektra record cost $225,000. It's a huge difference. So, the six years we were on Elektra, the three records we made, the people at Elektra that worked with us every day loved us. They're still friends of ours. We do not have that story of, "It was shitty." It was amazing. I wish, had we known a little more what we were doing, about... things happened in those days, where we didn't know how, even, the system worked.

We do now, actually. We didn't, I mean, because we were just young and dumb. We kind of tried all over the map. The other thing that was real weird about that time, we got sick of, every time we went somewhere... Because, like me, I said, I don't really like country music that much, and we got tired of only being booked with country or rockabilly bands in these towns.

We were going, kind of revisiting our Cheap Trick obsessions with our childhood, and that was, where we had been kind of zoning in, I guess, some Johnny Cash, or bands like that, with our first couple records, definitely, on Satellite Rides, all we wanted to do was sound like Cheap Trick. Maybe now, when I hear it, it always sounds funny when people call that record a pop record. I go, "Well..." In 2000, or 2001, whenever we recorded it, to me, pop music was the Spice Girls. I was trying to make our band sound like Cheap Trick. But, I guess, to a certain degree, we were poppier than Bloodshot bands. So that little era was awesome. I wish we could have gone another... I just wish we'd have made a couple decisions differently, it would have helped the long-term thing of the band. But it was what it was. It was amazing.

PSF: Sounds like you guys had a different story than other bands, like Nada Surf, or Spoon, or even Superdrag, when it came to Elektra.

KB: Yeah. We ate dinner with Spoon, right when they were having their shitty time, and they were actually having a shitty time with one of the guys that loved us. He just didn't like them, and Britt was really bummed out. I remember sitting across the table, and rumbling, that it was kind of awkward, because we were eating with Elektra, and he was having a bad time, and we were having a good time.

Sometimes life is what you make out of it, too, because we kept a good attitude, and even when they wouldn't let me... They never did make us a video--that's still a joke between us and our A&R guy. Every now and then, I just put it on, it's nice to go, "Hey, man, so where's my video?" They were spending a lot of money on other acts, and not us, but we still were happy.

PSF: What has the songwriting process been like?

KB: Generally speaking, it's Rhett Miller, who writes the song that will sound roughly like something that would be on a Bob Dylan record in about 1963, and then, we nearly always somewhat deconstruct it a little bit, by just saying, "What can we do with this thing, to make it better in the end?" That's what we're trying to do. That's what a band is supposed to do, and so, we go in, and we do all the stuff that you hear on the records, and that's what they sound like.

It's roughly the same way with Murry. Although, when Murry writes a song, it's funny, he's usually less open. After that, they just kind of chug along, but I have more creative freedom with the Rhett songs.

PSF: What has success been like, and how has everyone dealt with it?

KB: Well, everybody says, "Kids change your life," and they certainly do, but the band changed my life, more than my kids changed my life. It's changed everything about me, as far as, more than anything, it gave me confidence in life, because I grew up... I always wanted to do something different with my life. I mean, a lot of people say that. I wanted to write the Great American Novel, like a lot of people do, or I wanted to... I wanted to do something, where, I always wanted to be that guy that, when I walked into the room, or if I walked into a store or something, people might likely go, "Hey, man, that's so and so."

When I was young, a lot of that had to do with... my dad was a high school football coach. I was kind of an athlete in high school, so I knew I could walk the halls of my high school, and I wasn't a big bro jock, but I knew that people would say, "There goes Ken Bethea. He's starting on the football team." I liked that. That made me feel good.

I just couldn't see past that. The next thing I knew, I was out of college, and working for the defense industry, and eating shit. Man, I hated that job. I hated my life. I didn't hate my life, I just hated my job. So, with the band, that has been my life ever since, and I was 30 when we started the band. So, I was a 30-year-old man who had not once, outside of high school football, had had the spotlight on me, and suddenly, it's been that way for 25 years, autographs, and all this stuff. Being onstage, and TV shows, and we haven't had to have jobs. We still make pretty good money doing it, so it's incredible. It's a dream come true.

PSF: What has the stabilizer been, in keeping the lineup together?

KB: I think all of us really love doing it, first of all. You're young. Do you know the band American Music Club?

PSF: Of course! I love American Music Club.

KB: Okay, so, Mark Eitzel, I met him about two or three years ago, at this kind of festival thing in Mexico, and I hung out with Mark quite a bit for a couple days. He told me that after every gig of American Music Club, at least one band member considered that the worst show of all time, and was utterly miserable, and would make everybody else miserable about it. I said, "Oh, my God, are you serious?" He goes, "Yeah." I go, "Man, that's never happened once in my band." And even when we have a bad night, like, something shitty has happened, that's only about once out of every 30 shows, it's like, "Man," something, we're just ready to get the hell out of town. Yeah, and it's only once about every 150, that we actually are angry. Somebody's mad over something, and so, that part of it has always been really good. We're all pretty good friends. It's just, we have other things going on, but if he wants to go see a band, or something, or I want to go see a band, I usually call him, and we've remained pretty good friends. Or very good friends.

You know what? Like, you hear a lot of bands say, "Well, it's like a family," but it really is like family, where we do have some problems sometimes with each other. But just like, if you have a family member that shows up at Thanksgiving, they always have a few too many, or something, like, there's a quirk about them that can get on your nerves? We just learned to deal with it a long time ago. You just go, "Well, that's Murry." You got to deal with it.

PSF: What happened with the Elektra deal? Were you guys dropped, or was it just time to move on?

KB: We were dropped. The big Napster thing that led into the reorganization of the music industry happened around 2000, about 2003 or '04, and we were dropped. We knew we were in major trouble, when, about six months before they dropped us, they fired at least half of the 10 people that worked with us daily. That wasn't good, and six months later, we found out we were dropped. It was sad. Because, like I said, it was a good experience for us. It was really fun, and those were fun times, but it happened.

PSF: Do you think that Rhett's solo career caused any problems at any time during the band?

KB: Probably a lot of problems, first, probably, five years of it. It was problems in everything from, we couldn't, there were times when we wanted to... sometimes, it felt like his creative inputs were more there than with us. It's just like anything like that would be. It wasn't just, yelling over it, but it was definitely problems.

Luckily, for me and Philip, at that time is when our kids were born, so I was really busy with little newborns, and so was he. Murry's really the one taking the shorts, because that was before his son was born, so that was pretty rough for him, because he didn't have anything else to do. I mean, Murry sat around, wishing he could be out with his band.

PSF: What has it been like recording with New West and ATO?

KB: Well, I don't know. It's hardly all that much different. The budgets are smaller, but the way you'll find out, if you're on a major label, let's say you're going to go to the studio, and the studio costs... well, let's just say, $1,000 a day. For the major label, it costs $1,000 a day. If you're on New West or ATO, it costs $600 a day. Maybe $500. And if you're doing it by yourself, it may cost $300 a day.

That's just the way the industry works. They make you a deal if they know... if they know you got a big fat label deal, they're going to charge market, full, because they'll cut your deal, if not. Well, the biggest difference, which is kind of funny, is, at Elektra, there was always Elektra people hanging around the studio, and it was kind of fun. It was never a problem for us. They were always super supportive, and like, "Oh, man, it sounds great," and making us feel good, like cheerleaders. That only happened, very, a little bitty bit, with New West. Even Peter Jesperson. Peter was our A&R guy for that, so... We were good buddies with Peter, and he would come a couple times, and he was real supportive, so that felt good. But the weirdest thing about ATO? There was not one time that one person who had anything to do with that label came to the studio. I'm like, you think they'd come out here, and hang out. It's kind of fun, you know.

PSF: So what are you guys currently up to, and what is everyone doing outside of the band?

KB: What are we up to? Well, this is a book you're working on, right? This is rumor-mill stuff, but we just finished a Christmas record. It's mainly originals, but there's going to be at least, I don't know, three, four, five covers on it. That was pretty fun--it was different. It's going to be on ATO.

Let's see, outside of the band? I used to do a lot of youth sport coaching. I coached football and soccer, but now my son's going to college in the fall, so I've got that going. We all have kids that are growing up, so, just like any family members, we keep up with our kids, take them to school, pick them up, drop them off, and make their lunches. Stuff like that.

PSF: Do you think it's possible to categorize a band like Old 97's? Alternative, roots rock, country?

KB: You know, in the end, I always tell people, "I'm in a rock band," and they'll say, "What kind of rock band?" I'll say, "Well, it's kind of like American rock." It depends. If they're taxi drivers, you just go, "Well, we kind of sound like Tom Petty, or Bruce Springsteen," which we don't, but taxi drivers--that's their reference point.

But if it's somebody that seems to know a little more, I might say, "We sound like R.E.M., except a little different," like, if R.E.M. was a little more folksy or country. Every now and then, now, you can mention Jason Isbell, you can mention Wilco, you can mention Ryan Adams, and they, "I never heard of those people," and I just go, "Well, we don't really sound like any of them. But we know all of them, and we play with them. We've played with a lot of those artists many times." But we're the quirky birds that don't exactly sound like them.

PSF: What do you think of the impact of alternative rock in the '90s?

KB: Unfortunately, it had a huge impact in the '90s but not a lot on the 2000s. Just the other day we were talking about how there's just very few rock bands that are really popular. In other words, that high school kids listen to. I mean you had R.E.M., who was so huge and so influential that every band... and I've always argued, I'll argue with anybody, that the greatest American band of all time's R.E.M.. And even when somebody else is taking me down 'cause they don't like R.E.M., I go, "Can you name one American band that influenced an entire decade of music? Like the following decade?" And the answer is, "No."

PSF: What do you hope the band's legacy will be?

KB: Man, first of all, like anybody, my old vanity going back, I don't want to be forgotten. At least by the people who know who we are, and at some point who we were, I don't want to be forgotten. I want them to say, "That was a really good band. Those guys gave a crap about what they were doing. They didn't just do cookie-cutter music. They worked hard on all their songs." And as a little bonus, here in our state, it's a state where you have a lot of legendary artists that have come out of Texas, and I would like to be at least at the bottom end of that legendary pile.

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