Rhett Miller on the Old 97’s, Waylon Jennings, and the Holy Grail

Old-97s-Waylon-Jennings-CD-353xCall it a multi-generational outlaw country summit; call it an historic moment in alt-country history; or maybe just call it a gift to us all. The story of the Old 97’s recording session with legend Waylon Jennings in a Nashville studio in 1996 reads something like an Americana fairy tale – with the accomplished legend (Jennings) giving his blessing to the then-up-and-coming 97’s (guitarist/vocalist Rhett Miller; guitarist Ken Bethea; bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond; drummer Philip Peeples). The recently-released EP Old 97’s & Waylon Jennings offers up the two tunes recorded during the 1996 get-together, along with four acoustic 97’s demos from the same period. Rhett Miller took some time out from the band’s current recording sessions to share some Waylon memories, a quick peek at the Old 97’s upcoming studio album … and some picking advice.

BR: Hey there, Rhett – how are things going in the world of the Old 97’s?

RM: Pretty good. We’re actually finishing up tracking our new record right now.

Well, I don’t want to be holding things up – let’s get right to this sweet little EP you guys just released. There are some cool acoustic demos from 1996 that we’ll talk about, but first I wanted to ask you about the two songs that the Old 97’s recorded with the late, great Waylon Jennings.

Waylon was the man – and getting to work with him was a pretty cool thing. He appreciated what we appreciated and there was sort of an element of him passing the torch.

Do you have an early memory of hearing Waylon’s music?

Yeah. There was a diner in Dallas called the Easy Way and at each of the tables they had one of those little juke boxes with the pages – you know, so you could pick out your own songs?

Sure – I know exactly what you mean.

And I remember they had some Waylon in there. Actually, my most favorite stuff was Buddy Holly’s – which Waylon played bass on, as well. I was obsessed with Buddy Holly. I remember when I was a kid Waylon scared me a little bit, you know?

Really?

Yeah, that Outlaw thing. (laughter) I didn’t gravitate towards that until later – but early on I was obsessed with Buddy Holly.

Did the Old 97s cover any of Waylon’s songs early on?

You know, it’s funny – we never really covered much of anybody. We had one Hank Williams song – “I Won’t Be Home No More” – and maybe a couple of Buck Owens songs, but that was it for covers. We listened to all of it, though.

My Uncle Ed was from Texas and hung out a bunch with the Outlaw country scene. There were so many stories … he used to travel around on Willie’s bus.

Oh, man …

Yeah. He was called a roadie, but I think his job was to figure out who was holding when they pulled into a new town. (laughter)

Wicked! So fast forward to 1996: the Old 97s are playing a live set in a hotel ballroom in Atlanta, GA at a radio convention …

We had a little indie label record out called Hitchhike to Rhome and at that point we were touring behind Wreck Your Life that we recorded for Bloodshot in ‘95. I think the radio convention was before we did our first record with Elektra; we were just being courted by the label.

When were you first aware that Waylon was in the audience?

It was obvious when we walked onto the stage: it was a well-lit ballroom in the middle of the day and he was sitting right in the front row, right in front of me.

And you didn’t know he was going to be there until you walked out on stage?

No … no pressure … (laughter)

Reminds me of the legend about when the Allman Brothers and Derek & The Dominos crossed paths. Supposedly, Clapton and the guys were squeezed in up in front of the crowd barriers, right at the foot of the stage at an Allman’s gig. Duane’s in the middle of a solo; looks down and sees Clapton and simply freezes – stops playing. Dickey picks up the lead, thinking something’s wrong with Duane’s gear – then he sees Eric and turns back-to … he tries to pretend Clapton’s not there. (laughter)

That’s what it felt like – “Oh shit.” But you know, we’d been out on the road for so many months at that point that we felt really good about what we were doing and I’ve always liked a challenge: “Alright; I’m good at this and I’d bet you money he’s going to like it.”

I think you mentioned in the EP’s liner notes that you formally met after the show, but it sounded like a quick sort of thing.

Yeah – it was just an introduction. But Waylon was super nice. You know, it’s hard to know sometimes if somebody’s blowing smoke or if you can believe what they’re saying. But when I read it in the Austin Chronicle a few weeks later I said, “Oh – I guess he did mean it, after all.”

[From Waylon’s interview with the Chronicle’s Tim Stegall: “I saw this group down there in Atlanta. I did a thing where we had a panel, and I was part of the panel called ‘Demystifying the C-word’. Country, y’know? This group’s called the Old 97’s. They are great! They are country, but I think country is headin’ that way, right there. And Old 97’s is from a song called ‘The Wreck Of The Old 97’. I watched ‘em. Man, that thing hits ya right there,” Waylon remarks, thumping his chest for emphasis. “They were strong!”]

And then you wrote Waylon a thank you letter, asking if he might want to work together. I know you meant it, but it must’ve felt like the biggest sort of close-your-eyes-and-let-it-fly long shot.

Well, yeah it was – but as it turned out, he’d been thinking along those lines, too. He had an idea of hooking up with other musicians and recording some stuff in different settings. So we were thinking along the same lines – a sort of psychic connection – and I guess when he got the letter it just made sense. It worked out perfectly.

Ol’ Hoss and the boys in the studio (Photo from North Folk Sound)

Ol’ Hoss and the boys in the studio (Photo from North Folk Sound)

I had to laugh – even though one of your heroes was interested in recording together, you guys balked at him wanting to load into the studio in Nashville at 8:30 in the morning.

Oh, I know … (laughs) Maybe there’ll come a day when I think that sounds like a good idea, but … Even right now, it’s – what? – two o’clock in the afternoon? And I’m just getting rolling in there. The producer can start working early – that’s fine. But rock ‘n’ roll before 3 o’clock in the afternoon …? (laughter)

But you struck a 10 AM compromise, according to the liner notes. First came the instrumental tracks. Waylon didn’t play guitar during the sessions, correct?

No – he just sang.

He had his son Shooter with him, who must’ve been 16 or 17 at the time.

Yeah, it was sweet seeing them together. Shooter’s such a good guy; we’ve become friends over the years. You can tell that Waylon was a good dad to him.

I have kids of my own and I like to think that it’s possible to have a good connection with your dad even though he’s on the road a bunch or doing this weird job. Even though I didn’t have kids at the time, I liked seeing them together like that.

And Waylon passed the music on to Shooter, who has done some great stuff himself. That’s a cool thing.

Although I’m kinda hoping my kids will go into a more stable line of work. (laughs) But it’s whatever makes them happy, I guess … that’s the bottom line.

That would’ve been six years before Waylon passed away; how did his health seem to be at that point?

I do know that he wound up in the hospital right when we got the artwork for that record. I don’t know that it was the actual beginning of the end, as I wasn’t privy to what was going on in his life.

Is the cover of the EP the original artwork – the Jon Langford painting?

Yeah – and I think that being in the hospital may have contributed to Waylon not being crazy about the artwork which, you know, showed him surrounded by angels – us.

Actually, Waylon’s biggest complaint was that it was too much about him and not enough about us. You can see on the cover that he’s big and we’re really tiny.

It’s cool that he was concerned about that. Not everyone in that position would be.

Waylon just seemed like a really generous guy. There was no ego to speak of; he had his skins on the wall; he didn’t have to be anything but a cool guy. He just wanted to make people feel good about being there.

Sounds like the sitdown together at lunch was an experience in itself.

Waylon was so personable and so down to earth that he didn’t make us feel like we were in the presence of a rock star … we were just in the presence of a guy who’d spent his life doing what we were hoping to spend our lives doing.

There we were, at the beginning of a – hopefully – long career and there he was, towards the end of an amazing, long career and we’re peers.

It was like a continuum; we were bringing something to the Earth that didn’t exist before; trying to create something beautiful and fun. It didn’t matter if you were an elder statesman or a young whippersnapper; we were just kind of all in it together. I love that.

You got him talking about the old days in the Crickets with Buddy Holly.

Yeah … and of course the sad story about his final words to his friend Buddy.

[Holly had chartered a small plane on the evening on February 2, 1959 to hop ahead from the Crickets’ gig in Clear Lake, Iowa to the next show in Moorhead, MN. Waylon originally had a seat on the plane, but the Big Bopper – who was also on the bill – asked for his berth in lieu of riding the less-than-luxurious band bus. Ritchie Valens also took a seat on the plane, having won it in a coin toss with Crickets’ guitarist Tommy Allsup. Jennings’ last memory of Buddy Holly was the rock ‘n’ roll legend saying to him, “I hope your damned bus freezes up again.” “Well, I hope your old plane crashes,” Waylon joked. The plane took off in a snowstorm during the early morning hours of February 3rd. It crashed in a cornfield less than six miles away, killing all onboard.]

Like I said in the liner notes, even though Waylon had probably told that story a billion times, telling it to us choked him up. But it makes sense: they were friends. The guy’s a legend and it’s a legendary story … but it was actually something that they lived through. So sad, man.

Absolutely. I remember reading in Waylon’s autobiography that for a while after that he didn’t care about playing music. It took awhile for him to get back on his feet.

I believe it.

So after lunch, it was time for Waylon to lay down his vocals. I wanted to ask you: I was chasing Ken’s opening riff to “Iron Road” on the guitar and realized it was in F … why? (laughter)

You know why? The Old 97s decided in our earliest days that we would tune all of our guitars a full step down – so half the time our songs are in F or B flat. When we’re playing Gs or Cs, anybody playing along with us has to play an F or B flat … it’s a nightmare – a total nightmare. (laughs)

How much prep did Waylon do? Did he want to get in character for the songs – the hobo in “Iron Road”, for instance?

I think he and Murry bonded on the concept of the hobo – the hobo’s proximity in the cultural lexicon to the musician and how we’re itinerant and it’s hard to keep a family. I heard them bonding over that – but I wasn’t the songwriter on “Iron Road”, so I was just the fly on the wall.

Yeah, well, you got your workout when you got to “Other Shoe” – which is a bit of a brain-warper. (laughter) Well, it is – on the surface, it just sort of rolls along … and then you pay attention to the words and realize the guy’s underneath the creaking bedsprings with a .44, with his wife and her lover above him. Jesus …

(laughs) I know … I’ve had people come up to me and ask if this happens or that, and I tell them, “I don’t know … that’s for you to imagine.” (laughs)

And then there was the problem with your lyric – the word “elixir,” which Waylon kept pronouncing “excelsior.” If you don’t mind telling the story one more time …

Well, imagine having to go in and tell the guy with that voice how to sing. (laughter) It was just a pronunciation question and a word he wasn’t familiar with – which I was kind of surprised about because it’s an old-timey, countryish word. I thought for sure he’d know what it was.

But it took him a minute and I’m sure he would’ve gotten it without my silly little idea to just take the phrase “an elixir.” I told him to imagine two women who love each other very much and one of them’s named Annie.

And he could sing, “Annie licks her.”

And it worked.

Oh, he loved that. That was our big bonding moment. (laughter)

And he nailed it on the next take.

Oh, of course – yeah. It’s Waylon … how many songs had he sung? How many mics had he been in front of? He was a pro, man – a total pro.

Don’t go wandering off: click right HERE to read the conclusion of my interview with Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s on Jambands.com

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