Top 5 Albums: The Old 97’s

The Old 97’s have solidified themselves as Americana staples at this point. Few bands have been so consistent throughout their careers. They have been so consistent in fact that they haven’t had one lineup change in their 10 albums over 20 years. Their albums have been fairly solid as well, all standing the test of time in their own ways. From their twangy early days right up to 2014 where they started cussing like you’d have expected them to 20 years earlier. Their sound hasn’t changed much over that time but their are obviously highlights. Here is a look at what I consider to be their top 5 albums and why:

Here are the nominees:

  • Hitchhike to Rhome (1994)
  • Wreck Your Life (1995)
  • Too Far To Care (1997)
  • Fight Songs (1999)
  • Satellite Rides (2001)
  • Drag It Up (2004)
  • Blame It On Gravity (2008)
  • The Grand Theatre, Vol 1 (2010)
  • The Grand Theatre Vol 2 (2011)
  • Most Messed Up (2014)

#1 Album: Fight Songs

Year: 1999

Stand-out tracks: “Jagged” “Lonely Holiday” “Murder (or a Heart Attack)” “Valentine”

Old 97's - Fight SongsThe Old 97’s used a vaulting point out of “Too Far To Care” and delivered a knockout punch with “Fight Songs.” The record relentlessly delivers, from the grinding opening guitar on the song “Jagged” to bass play Murry Hammond taking the delicate approach to end the record with “Valentine.” It has arguably their biggest crowd pleaser in “Murder (or a Heart Attack)” that deserves it accolades. Even deep cuts like “Busted Afternoon” and “Oppenheimer” deliver with hooky choruses and fresh guitar twang. “Lonely Holiday” delivers some of Rhett Miller’s best lines on record like “Thought so much about suicide / parts of me have already died,” beat that anybody… This record is a nice transition in between the twang of “Too Far To Care” and the more rock direction they would eventually lean toward. As far as “Fight Songs” goes, there are no losers here, it’s solid all the way through.

#2 Album: Satellite Rides

Year: 2001

Stand-out tracks: “Buick City Complex” “Designs On You” “Question” “Up The Devil’s Pay”

Old 97's - Satellite Rideshe Old 97’s don’t think much of this album themselves. I have no idea why. Sure it has one of the “big hits” with “Question” (which is criminally the only song off this record they play many nights) but there is a lot more greatness here. “Buick City Complex” and “Rollerskate Skinny” are pop triumphs and it obvious on songs like “Bird on a Wire” that Rhett Miller was lyrically on top of his game. “Question” is always here to make the ladies swoon with some of Rhett’s most heartthrob moments but it is a crime that this record will always be remembered primarily for that.

#3 Album: Too Far To Care

Year: 1997

Stand-out tracks: “Timebomb” “Four Leaf Clover” “Barrier Reef”

Old 97's - Too Far To CareThis is the big one. It broke the band and most fans will likely say it is their best by far and likely disown this list for having it at #3. It stenches of a record best heard live (in a good way.) The big choruses of “Timebomb” and the sing-along fun of “Barrier Reef” dominate the landscape here. Murry’s signature song (possibly) is here with “W. TX Teardrops” and always assures him time at the mic at Old 97’s shows and this record always gets hit hard at shows (see what I mean about it being best heard live?) “Niteclub” is a personal triumph for Rhett that can be delivered as a rocker but also you can look past the tough musical exterior to see the pain hidden beneath in the lyrics. I think “Fight Songs” is their peak and “Satellite Rides” may hold some sentimental value to me so this is #3 but nobody in their right mind will blame you when you have this one at the top of your list.

#4 Album: Blame It On Gravity

Year: 2008

Stand-out tracks: “Dance With Me” “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue” “No Baby I”

Old 97's - Blame It On GravityWe get adventurous here. This isn’t your standard banner Old 97’s album and some might have it near the bottom of their list. The truth is that this is a great team effort of songs. While it may not have a song “Murder” “Timebomb” or “Won’t Be Home” that is a huge instantly likable single; it does have a solid 13 songs that are as “pop” as the band ever got. The band wears the sound well with songs like the stompy “Dance With Me” and the disillusioned sounding chorus of “No Baby I.” Once again Murry closes the album out on a strong note with another delicate number. “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue” may be slow and meander a bit but that’s exactly what it is supposed to do. It is a great closer for a great album made of solid songs instead of some home runs and a few filler tracks.

#5 Album: The Grand Theatre Volume One

Year: 2010

Stand-out tracks: “Every Night Is Friday Night” “Please Hold On While The Train Is Moving” “Champaign, Illinois”

Old 97's - Grand Theatre Volume OneThe ambitious idea of splitting this group of songs into two parts turned out to be a little one sided. While “Vol 2″ is still a solid album it seems that the band may have cherry picked the list a bit for “Vol 1.” First of all the song “Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)” may be their best song of the second half of their career. It is a live staple with a huge sing-along chorus and still maintains some good upbeat stomp. They even tap Bob Dylan’s music to re-write “Desolation Row” in “Champaign, Illinois” with new lyrics that shockingly don’t turn out to be sacrilegious toward the original song. They even up the tempo to make the meandering head trip a trumping rocker. “Please Hold On While The Train Is Moving” is anther great moment with a mid song tempo change that will try to convince you it’s an accident every time. The album has several great moments making it well worthy of clinching the #5 spot.

A special thanks to for the idea to do this.

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Posted by on March 2, 2015 in Top 5 Albums...


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The Vinyl Court: William Elliott Whitmore – The Early Years Box Set

William Elliott Whitmore - The Early Years box set

  • Artist: William Elliott Whitmore
  • Album: The Early Years Box Set (2014)
  • Purchased at: for $50

William Elliott Whitmore is a Midwest treasure. His simple delivery of raspy vocals with a kick drum and banjo or guitar is about as rootsy as it gets. He hails from western Iowa and all his songs take place there. He doesn’t sing about inflated topics or made up scenarios, everything is all too real in his songs. He writes about gravel roads, floods, crops and death; everything he deals with on an every day basis.

This three-album set consists of his first three albums re-recorded. The differences on the songs isn’t much, he replicates song orders and most songs as closely as he can from their original versions recorded from 2003 to 2006 originally. He has aggressive songs with thunderous bass drum like “Diggin’ My Grave” and fast picking songs like “Lee County Flood.” He also has a great knack for pulling on heartstrings with some of the most meaningful words you will hear sung on tracks like “Pine Box” and especially “Porch Light.”

These out-of-print (on vinyl) releases are packaged together and it fits. He did a limited run of 500 of them to appease his fans’ desire to own them. Each set comes with a handwritten postcard from Whitmore himself. Mine is inscribed “Be Well” and others I have seen say things such as “Play in the dirt.” His appreciation for his fans is apparent if you know anything about him. If more artists approached their music with this kind of care, music would be a much more personal experience for listeners.

Rating: B

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Posted by on February 18, 2015 in The Vinyl Court


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The Vinyl Court: Buck Owens -Best of Buck Owens Volume 1

Best of Buck Owens Volume 1

  • Artist: Buck Owens
  • Album: The Best of Buck Owens (1964)
  • Purchased at: Treasure Island Thrift Store (Maryville, MO) for $1

I’ll admit it; I really didn’t understand what country music was for a long time. I thought Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw were what the genre was for years growing up. As I have explored music backwards in my life I’ve found these golden oldies country artists like Buck Owens that simply blow me away.

The whine of steel guitars is one of the most pleasant sounds to my ears and these country and western songs are coated with it. The straightforward country delivery with the standard country vocals is still a recipe that is difficult to beat. While this album is nowhere near a retrospective of Owens’ career, this album has many of his favorites you’ve likely heard on the radio over the years or heard people cover. “Love’s Gonna Live Here” and “Foolin’ Around” are standards with their acoustic strums and electric leads. “Above and Beyond” is one of the best tracks here with the doubled vocals and perfected delivery and “Act Naturally” may sound familiar even if you aren’t a country fan as several artists recorded it, most notably The Beatles.

The classic simple album cover and no frills artwork match the songs perfectly. Owens doesn’t have a hair out of place on the cover photo and the back is 90% devoted to promoting other country albums by the likes of Wanda Jackson and Hank Thompson. If you’d like to find the record for yourself it isn’t difficult. These albums litter used record bins everywhere and usually can be acquired for little to nothing. It may not become your favorite record in your collection but having a spot in a album crate for some real country music can’t be a bad thing.

Rating: B-

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Posted by on February 14, 2015 in The Vinyl Court


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Album at a glance: Violet and the Undercurrents – Waves

Violet And The Undercurrents = Waves

The clear highlight of listening to this record is the smooth, sultry vocals littered throughout. This all female group easily produces dreamy pop songs coated with smooth cello and jazzy backbeats. They’ll remind you of the heyday of the 90s when the folk rock of Ani Difranco and Tori Amos littered FM dials. Their songs like “Set Me Free” have a confident strut and smooth pacing. The jazz club lounge worthy “Not Alone” shows they can pull off a down beats as well but it is clear they shine when the songs have upbeat tension. Lead singer Violet Vonder Haar likes to rush her vocal delivery to keep this tension as her bandmates subtly back her. This album is cool and smooth all the way through; each listen will have you admiring the clean production and supreme vocals.

Key Track: “Set Me Free”

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Posted by on January 31, 2015 in Album at a glance


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Album at a glance: Til Willis & Erratic Cowboy – Cars Etcetera

Til Willis & Erratic Cowboy - Cars Etcetera

Til Willis & Erratic Cowboy are actually anything but erratic, they have honed in on just a portion of their sound to make “Cars Etcetera” a bumping rock record. They even organized three albums for release on the same day in order to ensure cohesive groups of songs. On “Cars” the pace is kept intense and “Winter In America” finds a much more relaxed, driving groove to follow. The 90s obviously hold a strong place in the hearts of the band as they could fit right in somewhere between alternative and power pop from that era. “YWYHOYD” is another clear standout with crisp guitar licks and a strong backline. There is something undeniably unique about Willis and his band you might not be able to peg, but with this album it is obvious they are doing something right.

Key Track: “Winter In America”

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Posted by on January 28, 2015 in Album at a glance


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Album at a glance: Holy Mother Exhaust – Holy Mother Exhaust

Holy Mother Exhaust

Holy Mother Exhaust – Holy Mother Exhaust

This long lost record finally saw the light of day by way of a reunion show in November. The recordings aren’t new but very few have ever heard them. Dsoedean drummer Bobby Floyd takes control of the mic for the band and it is easy to see where his influences lie. The weirdness of The Pixies shines through often with erratic guitar licks and unconventional vocals. The energy in the guitar work keeps the songs bouncing, especially on “She Floats” where it sounds like the guitars are trying to escape from their own shadows. “That’s A Girl” finds the band indulging in a soaring chorus along with the rhythm section locking in as good as any place on the record. This recording feels done and ready to go; it just needs to find your ears.

Key Track: “That’s A Girl”

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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Album at a glance


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My Favorite Cracker Album: Countrysides by just j

This Is (Cracker) Country:  Why I Love Countrysides

By just j

just j is a music fan who lives somewhere in the Southeastern United States. Thanks to Miss Krista Norstog Leonard for her comments on an earlier draft of this blog post.  

Years ago, Facebook had a quiz entitled “What Cracker Album Are You?”  I took the quiz, and the result was Countrysides.   I probably am the only one who was not surprised.   “But j,” you say, “Even though you have lived in the Southeastern United States for over 20 years, you are one of the most Yankee-fied Yankees out there.  What do YOU know about country music?”  A fair question.  It is true that I grew up in New York City and lived either there or in Connecticut until my 22nd birthday.  Neither of my parents was a country music aficionado, let alone a country music fan.

My mother, however, grew up in Virginia.  Whether it was because of or in spite of this, we did watch “Hee Haw” on television as a family.  The host of “Hee Haw,” one Buck Owens, was the pioneer of the so-called “Bakersfield Sound.”  Now we are getting somewhere.  As other fans of Cracker know, the band recently released its two-disc album Berkeley to Bakersfield.  The Bakersfield disc pays homage to Cracker’s country roots, which are centered in or around that part of California.  In any event, as a kid I watched and listened to Owens, Roy Clark, Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, Minnie Pearl and the like once a week, with occasional viewings of performances from the Grand Old Opry thrown in for good measure.  Until my parents got a second television.  I guess this early exposure influenced me more than I thought.  Through Cracker, I have discovered many other bands and artists, many of which are country.  Good music transcends its genre.  Witness the late, great Patsy Cline and the late, great Johnny Cash.

Cracker Countrysides

Cracker, on the other hand, has always acknowledged, if not embraced, its country roots.  Countrysides came out in 2003, but I did not truly come to appreciate it until 2006, when I was going through a period of great change in my life.  When Cracker released Countrysides, of course, it was going through a period of great change as well.  At that time, Cracker’s lineup was lead singer, rhythm guitarist and co-founder David Lowery, lead guitarist and co-founder Johnny Hickman, drummer Frank Funaro, keyboardist/accordionist Kenny Margolis and bassist/vocalist Brandy Wood.  The band, which had always acknowledged its country leanings, performed mostly country cover songs for a six-month period around that time under the pseudonym Ironic Mullet.  In a contemporaneous interview, Hickman said, “As an observation, you only see mullets in certain regions. We noticed that people wearing them in New York were wearing them ironically, [because] they’re doing it to make fun of the ‘true mullets’ out there, man. It was sort of the working title for the country band within Cracker.”

Midway through the recording of Countrysides, Cracker’s long-time label, Virgin Records, dropped the band.  No surprise, then, that the album, which Cracker released itself on Artists Direct, included, along with the eight cover songs, one anti-Virgin screed called “Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself.”  But I am getting ahead of myself here.  The cover songs on the album fall, in my mind, into two categories:  (a) “This is Country!” and (b) “This Is Country?”  Please allow me to explain.

In the “This is Country!” category, half of the songs (“Redneck Mothers,” “Family Tradition,” “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Reasons to Quit”) are typical, straight-up country songs about drinkin’, smokin’, and a** kickin’.  These four songs were originally written and performed by arguably conventional country artists – Jerry Jeff Walker, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard (who duets with Willie Nelson on “Reasons to Quit”).  Cracker’s versions of these songs are nothing if not respectful.  Lowery is singing at the highest, most nasal end of his register on these songs.  Hickman’s guitar is at its most twangy.  Margolis’s keyboard and accordion work are at their finest.  All of these superb recordings compare very favorably to the originals, except for the absence of pedal steel.  The current east coast Cracker lineup, with Matt “Pistol” Stoessel on pedal steel, could play the sh*t out of any of these songs!  (That is a hint.)

The other four covers (“Truckload of Art,” “Duty Free,” “Sinaloa Cowboys” and “Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room”) are the “This is Country?” half of Countrysides.  All four fit into the album from a sonic perspective.  They are, however, more unconventional country songs from a subject matter perspective, and two were not even written by artists thought of as country musicians.  To be sure, Terry Allen is a country musician, but he is also a visual artist.  These two passions come together in “Truckload of Art,” a wistful ballad about a truckload of paintings and sculptures that overturns on its way to New York City.   Ike Reilly, who wrote “Duty Free,” is from Libertyville, Illinois, for heaven’s sake!  And the subject matter?  Irish dudes who fish bodies out of the River Shannon?  (I did once see Frank Quinn perform with Ike, and he IS that Irish tourism poster guy.  But I digress.)  That said, Ike has recorded with, and written for, one Shooter Jennings.  And in his song “Hip Hop Thighs,” he namechecks both Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash.  If I can be a country music fan, Ike can be a country music fan.  And a country music songwriter besides.

“Sinaloa Cowboys” is another beautiful, plaintive ballad about two brothers, Miguel and Luis, who cross the border from Mexico to California to make a living working in a meth lab, written by, of all people, Bruce Springsteen.  The Boss’s voice on his version is somewhat more Dylanesque, but Cracker’s cover retains the pathos of the original in its tone.  The last of the “This is Country?” songs, “Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room,” is a slightly more conventional country ballad about a lying, cheating woman.  It suits the earthy voice of Hickman, who had earlier penned “Mr. Wrong,” “Trials and Tribulations” and “Hold of Myself,” and would go on to record “Mexican Jail” with his alt-country side project, The Hickman-Dalton Gang, to a T.  (Or should I say, a winged lizard.  But I digress again.)  That said, the songwriter, Dwight Yoakam, although a successful country artist, first got his start performing alongside bands like X, Los Lobos and The Blasters.  So in the same way that there has always been a country band within Cracker, perhaps there has always been a rock musician within Dwight Yoakam.

The last of the nine songs, “It Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself,” is an even bigger thumb in the eye of Virgin Records than the rest of the album.  Its loopy, non-rhyming and only somewhat assonant lyrics recount the story of Lowery getting on a plane to confront his label.  The only thing he gets out of the trip is a box of Mexican frozen popsicles.  Jackson Haring, Lowery’s traveling companion, allegedly gets the “Sticky Fingers” master tapes.  Margolis channels Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” on his keyboard work.  And Wood, who isn’t really Lowery’s cousin, joins in on vocals and puts in a word for feminism at the same time.  This song does not suck.  Itself or otherwise.

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is my love letter to Countrysides.  Although Cracker’s “Bakersfield” disc, with its beautifully worked ballads and two-stepping ravers, represents the band in all its sonic maturity, I also appreciate its earlier love letter to country music.  Now if you will excuse me, I am off to see what Amazon has in the way of Roy Acuff recordings.

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Posted by on January 7, 2015 in My Favorite Cracker Album


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