For many Texans, The Old 97s are one of the official bands of Texas. Throughout their two decades, they’ve earned their audience the hard way…by working their asses off, touring like crazy, and releasing album after album of excellent country-flavored rock…or is it rock-flavored country? The state was introduced to them via Hitchhike to Rhome, their formal debut album, and to celebrate its twentieth anniversary, it’s been expanded to include a heapin’ helpin’ of demos.
Those expecting the punch and crunch of their breakthrough album Wreck Your Life, and its critically acclaimed follow-up, Too Far To Care, might be a tad bit disappointed. Don’t get me wrong; Hitchhike to Rhome is a fine album, but the taut and tough sound—helped by a shitload of touring, mind you—was still in its infancy. At this point, Rhett Miller and company were going for a more traditional country sound—lots of fiddle, banjo, and country-style rhythms, and they did it really well; check out “Hands Off” and “504,” and their cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” is fun, if not a little bit hokey, with a fake country accent coating over what is otherwise a fine cover. Still, one can hear Miller’s formative steps of being a witty, clever, and funny lyricist who can write weepies that make you smile, such as on “Desperate Times” and “Wish The Worst.”
The second disc, however, is the real icing on the cake. Featuring a dozen demos and unreleased numbers, many of them, such as “Stoned” and “Desperate Times,” being as good as the final versions, while “Drowning In The Days” is superior to the album version. Also fun is their “Spaghetti Western” take on “Old 97’s Theme,” while their demo version of “Victoria” and “Eyes For You” show that they were well on their way on becoming the band they are today. There’s a reason they rerecorded “4 Leaf Clover” and “Doreen” for later records, because as nice as these early versions are, with experience and road-testing, these songs became the monsters only hinted at here.
At sixteen songs, Hitchhike To Rhome always felt a little bit too long and a little too loose, diluting the band’s strengths. This baby step is charming and fun and a lovely little glimpse of a band that would quickly become one of the best live bands in the country.