You will not go to heaven, you’ll go to Champaign, Illinois.
– Rhett Miller & the 97’s (with Bob Dylan’s approval)
By Andy Whorehall
So sings Mr. Stuart Ransom Miller II of Old 97’s, sons of Texas & one of America’s great, live, veteran bands. The Grand Theater Volume 1 marks the return of a band left to wander the last decade away on recorded output. Mr. Miller went seeking a solo pop career; how could he avoid the temptation with those natural good looks? Ryan Adams, another late 90s alt-country poster boy left his band for good, Whiskeytown, & did it too to some degree of success. The jury is still out on Miller’s solo excursions; although enjoyable on their own, they’re pop songs that generally lack excitement. Which makes this 2010 studio record a return to form for Miller’s compositions, thus rebooting the band’s electricity levels to ‘full on.’
Rhett’s solo career attempts appeared to have hindered the creation of every studio record put out by the 97s since 2001’s ‘Satellite Rides.’ Almost too witty for his own good, his solo records dabbled in pop classism, craft- and in return, it missed the electricity established with the 97s. This is a great band of sidekicks to have; specifically Murray Hammand, he who has been Miller’s writing foil, songwriting partner, and for the better part of 2 decades running now, providing the natural country harmony to Rhett’s punk-pop proclamations. The Grand Theater Volume 1 is a surprise then to say the least. A perfect balance between 1997’s raucous, punk-country rock masterpiece, Too Far to Care, & 2001’s power-pop flavored, Satellite Rides.
Songs like The Magician, You Were Born to Be In Battle, have a timeless Old 97’s glow that has been missing in the past few recordings. Murray’s vocal on ‘Battle’ almost steals the show too early, sounding like a ‘Too Far to Care’ leftover that had to wait a few years for reflective assurance- a life in music. The soul-country bass line that opens Let the Whiskey Take the Reins slithers like a snake, bottom out the bottle, slide over here & drink up but stay awake- I haven’t told you about that one time in Champaign, IL yet.
Skip the pleasantries if Old 97’s aren’t your thing but you’d be a fool to not give track 7 a decent listen, a dozen times, while driving, while cooking, while drinking, while enjoying the company of old friends even. Some you may have seen the 97s with a very long time ago in a state too far gone now to care. Champaign, Illinois is the kind of song only Texas with Bob Dylan’s influence could have written for Illinois. The beauty is that Miller has admitted this song was written a long time ago with Murray, lifting a melody from Dylan’s Desolation Row. After disposing it’s existence a few times to avoid legal complications, the melody stuck- for years. And so they returned to this song just like we all return to that one place in Illinois we try to forget about. With Dylan’s artistic and legal approval, it became what it is now. I don’t hear the connection to the God-like composition that isDesolation Row- but at least Bob gets 50% of any royalties for the inspiration.
It’s a joke, a defeated oath, a righteous country-rock masterpiece, it should be sung everywhere in Illinois- not just Champaign. In sports bars, with your fat, overweight, drunk friends mourning their team’s latest heartbreaking loss by yelling in the air at the TV and at their friends. You will sit there pondering your existence, the cities you’ve been through and wander over to the digital jukebox. A digital jokebox, can you believe that shit? If you’re lucky, the jokebox will have Champaign, Illinois. Select it 9xs or $5.00 worth. Let it repeat, some will leave the bar, some will catch on and hopefully sing. Chances are in Illinois, you will be the only one smiling. Sing, mimic the lines to the chorus like a drunk poet only could hanging out with his sports fan friends on a Sunday somewhere in Illinois, watching large men in tight pants wrestle over a little brown ball. Jesus, America on a Sunday, what has become of you? Why are they always yelling at the TV? Ok, 9xs or $5.00 worth, remember to recite these lines proudly:
If you die fearing God
And painfully employed
You will not go to heaven
You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois
It’s the standout song on a record filled with standout moments & lines, solidifying why The Old 97s still matter to rock n’ roll but most importantly- to each other. I’ve been waiting quite awhile for them to return to form on record, admittedly, I gave up after Alive & Wired. A live record they put out that comes no where near the majestic glow of a 97s gig. It’s a filler, an obvious ‘here you go, enjoy this while the lead singer makes more solo records’ release. To amend some of the last decade’s releases by the 97s I’ve occasionally obsessed over & through goosebumped memories I revisit often about that one time I caught the 97s for the first time in Chicago at Lounge Ax in the mid 90s . The strings on Rhett’s acoustic cut his hand 2 songs in. Wrapped in ducktape, the band carried Rhett & the packed niteclub into what is now an eternal memory. For those that missed this train a long time ago, the train came back around. Grab a seat, take a few rides, The Grand Theater is worth more than a few returns to what is now strangely becoming Alt-Country’s glorious past.
The memories aren’t all bad
and neither, my friend, are you
There is an argument that there must be some heaven meant
For hearts that are half true
AW | SMS