The Old 97′s based their name on an early twentieth century ballad recorded by Vernon Dalhart and popularized by Johnny Cash. Only three years into their music career, one of Cash’s contemporaries, Waylon Jennings, was calling them the future of country music.
Jennings saw the Old 97′s perform at a Nashville radio convention when the band was only months away from recording their third album, Too Far to Care, and being courted by several major labels. Jennings talked them up to the Austin Chronicle, clearly enamored with their loose and reckless take on American Country, an aesthetic reminiscent of Waylon’s own “outlaw” country music. It is safe to say the admiration was mutual.
The two parties discussed working together and, in late 1996, Jennings went into a Nashville studio with the Old 97′s to lay down vocals on two of the band’s songs: “Iron Road” and “The Other Shoe.” Lead vocalist and songwriter, Rhett Miller, suspected Waylon was putting The Old 97′s through a tryout. “I think he had the idea that we would be his band for the next record he was going to make,” says Miller
Rhett recalls Waylon Jennings as a cordial man and a consummate professional. The elder country musician initially wanted to begin recording at eight thirty in the morning, an hour at which The Old 97′s were not accustomed to being conscious. “Now, I can wrap my head around that,” says Miller. “But back then, I could not believe that a rock and roll guy wanted to start a session at eight thirty in the morning. We compromised at ten thirty and I think the band still felt like we were being tortured.” Throughout the day, the band peppered him with questions about backing Buddy Holly on electric bass, all of which Jennings happily fielded, and watched him choke up as he discussed his last words to Holly and the plane crash that ensued.
At the time Jennings recorded with the Old 97’s, he was already in poor health. Only 59 years old, he had already had heart surgery. Not long after the recording session, Jennings was back in the hospital. The two songs were still ready for released, but when Waylon was shown the artwork, a saintly Jennings surrounded by four angels with The Old 97′s faces, he didn’t like it. Rhett believes Jennings was a little “freaked out” by the afterlife imagery, given he was examining it from a hospital bed. The Old 97′s didn’t want to move forward without Jennings’ approval, so they shelved the recordings. Although Jennings began playing again, he passed away in 2002 and that one day session remained vaulted.
The Old 97′s remained on good terms with Waylon Jennings’ son, Shooter, who made “The Other Shoe” available on a 2011 compilation called Southern Independent Vol. 3. Recently celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of Too Far to Care with a reissue, The Old 97’s have been in a nostalgic mood. The Waylon Jennings sessions, for good reason, have always been on their minds. With Shooter’s support, they decided that the upcoming Record Store Day on April 20 was a good time to release them. The tracks will be part of a double 7” that includes a second record with two early Old 97’s demos: “Visiting Hours” and “Fireflies.”
The band has kept a pretty tight lid on the recordings. My request for a sneak preview was not granted. But live versions of the two songs do appear on The Old 97’s 2005 album, Alive and Wired. “The Other Shoe” recounts the sort of perilous situation only a “blue steel 45” and bedsprings can precipitate while “Iron Road” is, appropriately, a railroad metaphor for a restless soul with plenty of regret in his rearview. You can see immediately why the band wanted Waylon’s poignant voice on these two tracks in particular.
For a band so informed by the strains of classic American country, The Old 97’s brief encounter with Waylon Jennings must have galvanized the group in a way that affected their ensuing success. “He was part of what validated us,” says Miller. Now, The Old 97’s are 20 years into their career and could prove similarly inspiring to other young musicians, but there Miller stops me short, saying he would never imagine himself in the same category as Waylon Jennings. It is that deference that, inversely, makes The Old 97’s as popular and sturdy as they are.
The Old 97’s certainly derive, inasmuch as that term can be used positively, from a tradition that far precedes them. One can certainly understand how Waylon, wrestling with mortality, was so troubled with a picture that placed him in heaven. But it is entirely appropriate to think of Waylon Jennings accompanied by a host of Old 97’s seraphim, singing a country sanctus to their musical forebear. With the release of this 7”, they now have the chance to give a small, but due tribute to one of their heroes.