Point-to-Point 4: The Old 97’s – Blame it on Gravity

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in May 2008, contributed by then Editor-in-Chief Rip Rowan. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Back in late 1994 or early 1995, I was with my band cutting demos at Crystal Clear Sound in Dallas. Crystal Clear was (and is) one of those locally legendary studios that pretty much every musician in Dallas knows, and engineer Keith Rust has cut tracks for a lot of Dallas’ better artists.

As I recall, we were all sitting around our plates of Tex-Mex when one of us asked Keith if he had come across any decent bands lately. Keith thought for a second and said that he really liked the work on the latest Moon Festival CD. And we should definitely check out this cool punkabilly band called the Old 97s who had just cut their first album (Hitchhike To Rhome) in his studio.

Following Keith’s lead, our band checked out the Moon Festival and found them odd yet remarkably talented. And we started doing opening duty for the Old 97s at a standing gig they had at Club Dada.

Those were heady days for Dallas bands, with the success of the Toadies, the New Bohemians, the Nixons, Tripping Daisy, and a few others. Our band went nowhere, but the Old 97s were lit to pop. Within a couple of years they got signed to Bloodshot, then to Elektra, and become another of Dallas’ musical success stories. The Old 97s, along with Wilco, Whiskeytown, and Uncle Tupelo, are generally considered one of the foundation bands of the Alt-Country (“y’allternative”) movement. They’re also the most durable, being the only one still recording and touring with the original lineup.

Fast forward twelve years, and that conversation with Keith over Tex-Mex has come full circle. For my best friend and partner in my recording studio is Salim Nourallah – Moon Festival’s singer / songwriter and bassist. And in our studio are the Old 97s, recording their first work back in Dallas since Hitchhike. Thanks for the tip, Keith.

The album would be an important one for all parties concerned.

The Old 97s previous work, Drag It Up, fell on mostly deaf ears. It was a lo-fi, minimalist endeavor – arty, but moody – whose musical relevance largely evaded critics who had come to expect the usual barrage of twangy pop. And the band had taken a four-year hiatus while front man Rhett Miller was engaged with his own solo project. The lengthy downtime and lackluster success of Drag it Up led many to speculate that the Old 97s were ready to throw in the towel.

So the band’s announcement that they were heading into the studio – in Dallas, no less – to record their seventh studio album raised a few cynically-cocked eyebrows from fans and critics alike. What kind of album would they make? Could it recapture the energy and vitality of their earlier works? Or would it be an even further departure from their former style?

Well, my friends, I am a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool Old 97s fan from the word “go”, and I was terribly excited about working on their new record. Salim and I wanted to make a record that recalled the energy of the early work, but with a little more rock edge and maturity. Fortunately, the band didn’t need convincing. They had exactly the same kind of record in mind. They brought their A-game and showed up ready to rock.

The fruit of our labors, Blame It On Gravity, is getting great press, has already charted on Billboard’s Top 100, and is being well received as both a return to form and a step forward for the band. To my biased ears it’s a great record – a classic 97’s fusion of rock and country, sort of Merle Haggard and the Attractions. The collection of songs has a little something for everyone, from alt to country, and from arty to party.

Trying to decide which song to dissect for a Point-to-Point article was challenging. I would love to write about the making of the ultra-energetic The Fool, or the spaciously hypnotic Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue, or the hooky lead-off single Dance With Me. In the end I decided to write about the making of Ride.

Unlike many Old 97s’ tunes, with their curiously-clever storytelling twists, Ride tells a stripped-down story of classic male angst, “I will grow impatient for your love but you will not recognize how I might die inside unless I ride.” It immediately conjures the image of a young man barreling down the highway at suicidal speeds in a souped-up Mustang, trying desperately to outrun his lovesickness. I, for one, have taken that journey. And the story is told simply, with few lyrics, and an uncomplicated, direct song structure.

Some songs are interesting because of their complexity. Others are interesting because of their straightforwardness. I chose Ride because it’s straightforward. It isn’t about flash. It’s about vibe.

Also, the making of Ride tells the story of patient production and musicianship, because the band cut two completely different versions of the song.

This article will cover the recording and mixing process of Ride from the ground up, including sound samples of various tracks and submixes. To have context for the sound clips we’ll provide, you’ll need to hear the song in its entirety. We can’t give it away, but it’ll only cost you a dollar on iTunes or Amazon, so grab a copy now.  We’ll be here when you get back.

Pre-Production

Ride originated as a shuffle beat country song – a completely valid interpretation of the song.  We recorded this song in our early tracking sessions to about 80% completion so we could evaluate it.  As a twangy country shuffle song, Ride evoked a different kind of Mustang: horse, not hot rod.  It was less about angst and more about the spacious vistas of west Texas, where you ride, ride, ride.  It was a perfectly reasonable, comfortable take on the song. 

Too comfortable.

Too safe.

Sometimes, a band that’s been playing together for a long time will unintentionally fall into a familiar groove when working up a new song.  Maybe 98% of the time the band’s gut instincts are dead-on.  But sometimes, the familiar groove needs to get shaken up.

Salim and I thought that Ride just wasn’t hitting on all 8.  What if, instead of being a country shuffle, we rethought the song as a more tough-sounding rock song, with a heavy beat and big, muscular guitars?

To me, it’s easiest to rethink a song if you can get the drummer to start playing a completely different beat, and then force the rest of the band to follow the drummer.  What if we transplanted a 4-on-the-floor rock beat into this song?  I referenced AC/DC’s Girls Got Rhythm, and drummer Philip Peeples laid down his best Phillip Rudd.

The effect was immediate.  Coupled with Rhett’s rhythm guitar and lyric, the song stopped shuffling and immediately started barreling.  The band jammed on this new version and quickly captured drum and rhythm guitar tracks.  We noodled with bassist Murry Hammond for just a few more minutes, trying to find the bass part that was the right kind of Old 97s mix of country and rock, and within an hour Murry had found the perfect part and laid it down.

It was slightly unfamiliar territory for the Old 97s – no strangers to rock, but a band that tends to keep its rock influences more in the realm of British Invasion than early metal.  Of course, nobody would ever wonder if any Old 97s song was the long-lost track from the Highway to Hell sessions, and Ride emerged from the cauldron as a fully-formed Old 97s tune with a little more modern rock edge and weight – a novel form of the music that typifies this band’s uncanny genius for fusing old-school country with rock and roll.

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