These Streets Are Where I’m From: Old 97’s Bring Sterling Lineup To Hometown Festival REVIEW+PHOTOS: OLD 97'S COUNTY FAIR 4/14/18
DALLAS, TX- The beauty of music, for a listener, is that we can read into songs the meanings we need at the time we encounter the lyrics. Two weekends ago, as I entered Main Street Garden for the Old 97’s County Fair — a festival curated by the namesake band — I thought about the arc from Too Far to Care (my entry point to the 97’s) to Graveyard Whistling (their latest album), and of how it’s a special thing to grow older alongside a band you love and to find resonance in evolving storylines.
The Old 97’s County Fair, now in its third year, is a one-day festival dreamed up by music makers for music lovers. The one-stage setup removes the dilemma of choosing between overlapping sets and avoids the problem of sound bleeding between stages. The Fair is kid-friendly (and dog-friendly), with carnival games, funnel cakes, a free Ferris wheel, and in-and-out privileges all day. And where mega-festivals feature a dizzying array of genres, the Fair caters to fans whose playlists are dominated by Americana in its varied incarnations — soul, blues, country, heartland rock — bands that find themselves at home on a label like Bloodshot Records (which boasts an alumni roster that includes, in addition to the Old 97’s, the likes of Ryan Adams and Neko Case). Indeed, Bloodshot artists have been part of the County Fair lineup each year — Justin Townes Earle in 2016, Lydia Loveless in 2017, and the Bottle Rockets this year.
The 2018 lineup featured: Bastards of Soul; Jaime Wyatt; Erika Wennerstrom (of Heartless Bastards); the Bottle Rockets; Paul Cauthen; Valerie June; the Mavericks; Lord Huron; and, of course, the Old 97’s, who celebrated their 25th birthday at the end of the night, complete with birthday cake and sparklers.
The day started at noon with Bastards of Soul, who delivered a fierce one-two punch of Chadwick Murray’s soulful vocals and the irresistible energy of a band rounded out by a horn section (check them out here and here). Earlier that week, Rhett Miller remarked that “the highlight of this show might be the very first band” — no faint compliment in an immaculate festival lineup. Murray and bandmates — Daniel Balis (bass), Chad Stockslager (keys/vocals), Chris Holt (guitar/vocals), Matt Trimble (drums), Jeremy Sinclair (trumpet), and Jason Davis (saxophone) — recall Motown- and Stax-era greats, both in sonic stylings and their sharp suits. It’s downright insane that these guys haven’t yet released their first record, but it’ll surely be on heavy rotation when it arrives.
Jaime Wyatt captivated with a set of rock ‘n soul featuring songs off her latest album, Felony Blues. “We played in Austin last night and we’ve slept about three hours,” she confessed before adding, with a radiant smile, “We’re really glad to be here.” The crowd felt the same way, drawn in by her bittersweet stories of wayward souls in songs like “Wishing Well.” Wyatt grew up on a steady diet of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. (She covers “Misery and Gin” on the album.) The grainy details in her songs are convincing — she’s not merely referencing outlaw country conceits. As a teenager struggling with addiction, Wyatt learned what it was like to be on one end of a plea deal. We bandy about the phrase “music saves,” but the way Wyatt relates it in “Your Loving Saves Me” over swooping pedal steel lines, is saturated with an authenticity that’s vulnerable and moving.
Erika Wennerstrom‘s name is familiar to those who know Heartless Bastards, the Cincinnati-bred, Austin-based rockers. With the band taking a well-earned break after 2016 release Restless Ones, Wennerstrom found time to delve into a solo project, the product of which is Sweet Unknown. Wennerstrom’s dusky vocals are set against reverb-laden guitars — it’s a Technicolor take on Americana. In a nod to these fraught times and the search for self that permeates the album, Wennerstrom paused between songs to urge us to be kind to each other. The set ended with “Extraordinary Love,” a tender meditation on slowing down and healing oneself.
“At first, we thought maybe we’re crazy to fly out to play a 35-minute set,” remarked Bottle Rockets frontman Brian Henneman. “But then we realized that’s basically what The Beatles did their whole career. So we’re just the country Beatles.” The heartland rock stalwarts have been delivering their genre-bending blend of punk and rootsy confessionals before Whiskeytown became a household name. The Bottle Rockets’ enduring power was apparent as they charmed us with an ode to loyal canine companions (“Dog“), off their latest album, South Broadway Athletic Club, and enthralled with muscular, blue-collar songs like “Hard Times.”
Paul Cauthen draws on the traditions of Waylon Jennings and Muscle Shoals soul in My Gospel, his first album since leaving Sons of Fathers. His booming baritone is enough to stop us in our tracks — backed by the formidable Texas Gentlemen, the set recalled an old-time revival in its infections energy. The songs shared on Saturday included “Marfa Lights,” about the dark landscape of far west Texas, and “My Gospel,” with soaring church-choir harmonies.
Valerie June, whose Order of Time made Rolling Stone‘s Best of 2017 list, defies classification. The Tennessee native, who’s as magical with a tambourine as she is on banjo, draws from the sprawling roots of Americana. June’s versatility was apparent as she moved fluidly between the textured grooves of “Workin’ Woman Blues” and the ethereal glow of “Astral Plane.” The former, brightened by a horn segue, is a reminder that songs can nourish the soul even when the table is bare. The latter unfurls at a slower pace in a tranquil exploration of other existential planes. Toward the end of her set, June removed her pink embroidered jacket to reveal a red outfit that glimmered in the late afternoon sun. “Everyone has a light inside them,” she said. “It’s why I wear all this sparkly shit, is to remind you all of that.” It was an apt visual accompaniment to her luminous musicianship.
The stage seemed barely big enough to accommodate the infectious energy and panoply of instruments wielded by The Mavericks (side note: I need more accordions in my life). Flanked by a powerhouse cast, Raul Malo moved through a Tejano- and country-influenced set that included a rendition of “La Bamba” and ended with “Come Unto Me.” The Mavericks turned the County Fair lawns into a dance floor, proof positive that after more than two decades in the game, they’ve still got it. Completing this tableau was a little kid riding on her dad’s shoulders, swinging her stuffed animal in time with the beat.
The twilight hour of the festival belonged to Lord Huron, an LA-based band that’s as much a visual project as it is a sonic undertaking. The music stands on its own, but you’re missing out on the full experience if you don’t follow frontman Ben Schneider and company down the rabbit hole and into richly-imagined worlds of lovelorn wanderers, biker gangs, island outcasts, and cosmic drifters.
Lord Huron started as a solo endeavor inspired by the adventure novels of George Ranger Johnson (b. 1946). If you click around Johnson’s website, though, you’ll notice that the books are all conveniently out-of-print and their titles mirror the tracklist of Lonesome Dreams, the band’s first full-length album. It turns out the wild west writer doesn’t exist, but the gauzy harmonies of the album are tailor-made for wandering along imagined coastlines.
Sophomore album Strange Trails added a rockabilly swagger and retro-pop gleam. The teasers for the album were part-Tarantino and part-spaghetti western, with Japanese subtitles, pulp-fiction typeface, and antiheroes with ambiguous pasts. In the video for “Fool for Love,” our protagonist tricks a gang into taking on his muscle-head rival. In the ensuing bar brawl and chase scene, the characters run past a billboard that reads: “Feeling Lost? 1-800-774-1372.” Eagle-eyed fans who dialed that number found themselves in a choose-your-own-adventure story.
Vide Noir, released earlier this month, has an equally rich backstory. The album trailer is styled as a home-shopping channel. Punch in 1-877-Vide-Noir and a silvery voice will inform you that all representatives are busy and the current wait time is seven eons. Dial your way around and you’ll be invited to “obliterate the boundaries of space and time with the full line of Vide Noir products,” including the consciousness neutralizer and stargazer’s harness. Sadly for the cosmic gunslingers among us, all products are currently out of stock.
In the days leading up to the album release, Lord Huron invited fans to “follow the emerald star.” By using their smartphone geolocation function, fans could access a virtual compass that helped them navigate to certain places around the country, including spots in national parks and beaches. Once within a certain radius, their phone would unlock a new track for streaming.
For astral adventurers who weren’t close to one of these streaming locations, the County Fair provided a sneak peek of new songs (Vide Noirwas released the week after the festival), kicking off with “Ancient Names Pt. 1” and including “Never Ever.”
Vide Noir preserves the cinematic sweep and sensational narratives of earlier albums while kicking everything up a few notches with hard-charging rhythms and trippy textures — think The Kinks, infused with warbly Mellotron, Farfisa organ, and what sounds like a sitar or shamisen riff in the title track.
Music can be alluring because it offers an alternate reality, and I count Lord Huron in that category. Music can also invite us in because we recognize parts of our own stories in the autobiographical details permeating the songs. That, for me, is one facet of the Old 97’s magic.
The band has kept the same lineup through twenty-five years, no small feat in a notoriously mercurial business. Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea, and Philip Peeples exude pure joy on stage, and out of my many fond memories of seeing Old 97’s through the years, their set at the County Fair rises to the top. Maybe it’s the home court advantage or the crisp night illuminated by city and Ferris wheel lights, or maybe it was the adoring crowd that had traveled from all over the country for the third year in a row. Whatever the reasons, it was a high-octane experience. The audience sang along to every word of the opening song, “Barrier Reef,” which was followed by “I Don’t Wanna Die In this Town” (read the Sinatra story that inspired the song here). Midway through, Jaime Wyatt joined the band for “Good With God.” (Brandi Carlile provides the vocals on the album track.) The smiles on stage and in the crowd said it all.
There’s an inverse relationship between my love for a band and the quality of my concert captures. When I shoot as a detached observer, I can partly tune out and focus on the moments to freeze-frame. When I shoot as an unabashed fangirl, the experience is different. It’s a paradox: the moments I treasure most are often the moments I have the hardest time capturing. I feel that my photos of the Old 97’s never do the show justice, so I try to fill the gaps with words. What follows is a discursive amble to the crossroads of music, identity, and community. If you’re here for the photos (no judgment, I promise), just scroll on past.
When folks ask where I’m from, I respond that I grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Oftentimes, there’s a follow-up query: “But where are you really from?”
The immigrant story feels like a tired trope, though recent debates over Dreamers and walls are reminders that no nation is free of countervailing currents of nativism and multiculturalism. Mine is not a sob story — I’ve always known that I was lucky and privileged. But in the relative homogeneity of southern suburbs, I felt defined by markers of difference: the food in my lunchbox, my last name, and in the earlier years, the parent-teacher conferences where I tried to act as translator.
In elementary school, kids would pull up the corners of their eyes while chanting, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees,” but I tried not to let it bother me. We were just kids, after all, and they were just repeating a nonsensical rhyme. In first grade, we read Tiki Tiki Tembo, a book about a Chinese boy who drowns in a well. Afterward, my teacher asked if my name was really long, like the ill-fated character. In middle school and high school, some of our teachers would confuse me with the other Taiwanese girl in my grade — but I brushed that off as well — there was no malice in the mixups. Apart from a few ugly exceptions, none of these unfortunate interactions felt motivated by racial animus. I think a lot of folks simply hadn’t encountered enough immigrant families to know how to deal with certain kinds of differences. But intent is only part of the story, and these dynamics still made me feel lesser-than.
Fast forward to high school. My teenage anxieties were pedestrian ones — I didn’t know how to belong when I wasn’t athletic or outgoing or pretty. By then, I had internalized a sense of immutable otherness: I would never look like the lithe, blue-eyed beauties on the Abercrombie billboards. I stopped caring about being a straight-A student because I felt trapped in an identity that would always render me invisible or relegate me to the periphery. The one person who made me feel ok about myself was a (male) teacher, and that became a terribly confusing secret. I started cutting classes, which led to flunking classes. Good grades were supposed to be my ticket out of that town, and I’d screwed that up. But it didn’t matter anymore, because I was convinced that the only “out” was the permanent kind, and I started assembling the necessary accoutrements.
I remember this suffocating sadness. And I also remember that afternoon, driving down Highway 121, a friend slipped in a CD titled Too Far to Care, and suddenly this guy was singing about a girl with “Big Brown Eyes.” “Wait a minute,” I thought. “It’s possible to not be blonde-haired and blue-eyed but still have a guy write a song about you?” What I’m describing will sound absurd if you’ve not had this kind of revelatory connection with music. And it is absurd — the song had nothing to do with me. But when you find yourself adrift, does it matter if it’s the lighthouse beacon or the foghorn or a stranger’s voice, so long as it leads you back to shore?
Whether it’s Sunday service or a sports team, a book club or being front row at a concert, we’re looking for something to hold on to in a sea of ambiguous signifiers. For me, that super-catchy song about a girl with whom I shared a single physical feature — that song was it. Rock, pop, and country were all foreign dialects, but I understood enough to realize that the folks fluent in that language were the kinds of misfits who weren’t ashamed of being different.
Later that year, Fight Songs came out. I played that CD over and over again, searching for bits of myself in the lyrics. The refrain in “Lonely Holiday” captured perfectly the numbing effect of plotting our own demise. The destructive love in “What We Talk About” was a kind of self-immolation I knew; and “Alone So Far” showed I wasn’t alone in struggling to rationalize what’s broken. Outside of the 47 minutes of that album, nothing in my world really changed. But those 47 minutes were enough to make me think there was a possibility of being understood, and that there was a chance — a tiny, but nonzero chance — to turn this sense of longing into one of belonging.
Summer after senior year, I packed up and moved east. I had barely settled into my dorm room when planes struck the Twin Towers. Classes were cancelled and F-16s streaked across a sky so brilliantly blue that it felt like nature was cracking a sick joke. Phones were down, so I hopped online to let friends back home know I was safe. I noticed a high school classmate had posted, as his IM status, “Burn, Afghanistan, burn.” I typed to him: “Maybe it’s too early to point fingers — remember Oklahoma City?” — referring to early reports blaming Islamic extremists before McVeigh was arrested.
His reply was swift. “If you were American, you’d understand.”
I didn’t have a response. Sure, I was born elsewhere, but hadn’t I embraced quintessentially American things, from the Dallas Mavericks (incidentally, the first NBA team to sign a Chinese player) to Tex-Mex to saying “y’all”? It seems comically extreme now, but back then, I mostly steered clear of other Asian-American kids because I thought that the association would impede my progress toward becoming a pure, non-hyphenated American.
That short IM exchange on September 11th crystallized the difficulty of reconciling my love of the fabric of the heartland — Steinbeck novels, Wilco and Old 97’s, chicken-fried chicken (which is not the same thing as fried chicken) — with the feeling of alienation from those who asserted a truer claim to American identity.
For many years, I avoided Texas because I felt there was no place for me there. I moved around for school and jobs, hoping that the next neighborhood or the next city would be the one that unlocked a version of me that would be wanted.
Something clicked for me a couple of years ago, at one of Rhett’s solo shows at City Winery (NYC). He played new songs from what would later be announced as the band’s eleventh studio album, Graveyard Whistling. The line in “All Who Wander” about whether an experience was happiness or “some facsimile thereof,” coupled with the refrain that turns on its head the saying, “all who wander are not lost” — it cut through an accumulation of alienation and self-loathing. It was nearly inconceivable to me that someone like Rhett, who’s funny and well-read; an incredible writer (like any fan, I know a bunch of lyrics, but what really gets me all verklempt is his essays, including ones on Bowie and 9/11); and has a beautiful partner and kids, plus a legion of fans documenting every jump off of drum risers — that even someone like him might still wrestle with regret and self-doubt. Of course I know that the picture we present to the world is rarely the full one. But it’s one thing to think this at a cognitive level, and another thing entirely to feel a kinship to another wanderer.
To me, one of the motifs of Graveyard Whistling is that after decades in the business of living, we come to terms with the fact that this isn’t about conquering fears or enjoying every part of the journey, or any of the other pieces of mass-marketed wisdom. We might try our best and still find ourselves lower than low, forced to “climb up to the basement just to slide back down again.” But in the space of a show, we are connected. In the shelter of these songs, we see each other, and we are seen.
Graveyard Whistling contains the grit and twang and flipped scripts that we love about the Old 97’s (e.g., “all’s I know is I’m good with God — I wonder how she feels about me”). I wish I could break down the arrangements and instrumentation and analyze the sonic references. But that’s not my skill set, so all I can do is try to convey why the album is deeply meaningful. There’s an ineffably beautiful mixture of melancholy and defiance in these songs: the past recedes in the rearview mirror but we just gotta keep the car on the road. Maybe I’m superimposing this narrative onto the album because it’s the narrative I need, but I’m reconciled to that — we see things not as they are, but as we are.
That Saturday night in Dallas, I stood in the photo pit as the 97’s walked on stage. In front of me were musicians I adore, and to my back were fans I met through social media, and who have become wonderful real-life friends. These past couple of weeks, I’ve tried to unpack what I experienced that evening. I felt sadness for the years I spent running away from the place where I grew up. I felt disbelieving joy that by picking up a camera to chase after the ephemeral moments on stage, I finagled a place in that pit. But more than that, I felt a sense of homecoming — a feeling that I had thought impossible until that moment. I felt a part of, and not apart from, the folks around me.
Perhaps the take-away is this dialectical dance: we define our communities as much as our communities define us. And at a time when bitter partisanship and corrosive rhetoric lays waste to decency and democracy, this reminder that we can find communion even when we don’t share a common origin story, and that the language of music can reach deeper and farther than bite-sized tweets — this gives me hope.
As long as our Old 97’s are tearing up the stage — and I hope it’ll be for a very long time to come — I’ll be there, and I know I’ll see you there, too. The streets of where we’re from look pretty different, but if we keep rollin’ on, paths will converge in unexpected places. And the solace of seeing other headlights cutting through the dense darkness — that’s no small thing.
BELOW IS A LIST OF ARTISTS THAT WE WERE ABLE TO CATCH AT OLD 97’S COUNTY FAIR. CLICK ON THROUGH TO CHECK EVERYTHING OUT!