A Story in Three Parts
Pt. 1: December 1994
1994 was a good year to be in the Dallas music scene. Bands like the Nixons and Tripping Daisy and the Toadies were breaking out with national hits. Record labels were eyeing Dallas bands with eagerness. A local-national DJ named Redbeard had the drive-time rock show on the rock station (Q102) and was aggressively spinning local music during drivetime. It was just a great time to be in a rock band in Dallas.
That winter, my band was tracking some demos at Crystal Clear Studios with owner Keith Rust. Over a lunch break one day, I casually asked Keith if any interesting bands had been in the studio recently.
Keith replied that they had just worked on a CD for an art-rock band called the Moon Festival that was pretty good. And, he added, there was a killer sort-of-punk-country band called the Old 97s who had just finished up a CD.
So I checked out the Moon Festival, and met front man Salim Nourallah, and needless to say, that turned out great for both me and Salim. We’ve worked on lifetimes of wonderful music together and have learned greatly from each other. Salim’s influence on my tastes – the entire way way I think about music – cannot be underestimated.
And I checked out the Old 97s. They had a great draw at Dada where they played regularly – a club where we also drew well – so we conspired to get on their bill as openers for a series of shows. And that’s how I finally got to see the band live, and I was floored. The kinetic energy onstage was electrifying. The band thundered through its set and the sweating crowd ate it up. And the songs – this collection of unpretentious but infectious tunes – were a kind of music I’d never heard before.
In 1994 “rock” was grunge. If you had a twang in your guitar or a twang in your voice, you were country – and the Old 97s had both. But in those days, “country” meant sterile Nashville pop-masters like Randy Travis and Garth Brooks. The Old 97s played more like the Clash or the Replacements. And the twang was more Wichita Falls than Nashville.
I bought the record when it came out, and I was instantly charmed. After that run of shows, I didn’t see the band again for many years, but I kept up with the records. The band has made a number of killer records and for sure, records like “Wreck Your Life” and “Fight Songs” and the latest “Most Messed Up” are maybe the band’s best efforts, from a sense of musicality or artistry.
But over the years, for me, nothing had the staying power – nothing “took me back to the club scene days” – like Hitchhike. Overlong, minimally produced, sometimes cacophonous / sometimes playful – this record had a sort of naive charm that is impossible to maintain the moment record labels start waving contracts in front of you.
“Getting noticed” changes a band. Where before you were just kids with dreams and hopes having a good time with no expectations, suddenly you have a responsibility to create something marvelous. And you have to do it naked, under a microscope, with everyone watching. The act of observing something changes the thing observed. It’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in action.
The band never made a record like “Hitchhike” again – and really, they couldn’t even if they wanted to. You can’t re-have your first kiss. You can’t see Star Wars again for the first time. You just can’t get back to those places once they’re gone. And in this way, records are like time capsules – and Hitchhike to Rhome is truly that: a time capsule of the undiscovered, youthful band playing their first full “set” and just having a grand old time.
Meanwhile, Salim went on to work and tour with Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller for his solo work. Later, Salim and the Old 97s and I would go on to make several records together.
Over the years I quit listening to the Toadies, and the Nixons, and Tripping Daisy, and Buck Jones, and Ten Hands, and Hagfish, and 66, and Fletcher, and Pop Poppins, and all the rest of the local bands from that time. But Hitchhike to Rhome wormed its way into my heart and soul.
It’s karmic, somehow… I grew up with Rhome in my blood, literally, because half of my family is from there. My great grandparents even founded the tiny, adjacent community of New Fairview. So when Rhett sings,
Hitchhike to Rhome
take a Greyhound to Fredericksburg
it always evokes a palpable image of dusty, poor North Texas in my mind. Rusty metal windmills. Grain silos. Dirt.
Over the decades I’m sure I’ve listened to that silly romp of a record over 1000 times. I know every word, every guitar lick, every bass groove, every drum fill by rote memory. I shit you not: its in my desert island collection, right alongside Please Please Me and London Calling. There’s not another “local release” in my Top 20.
Pt. 2: January 2014
Early this year I received a message from God. Perhaps unsurprisingly, God used His child, “Diamond” David Lee Roth, to deliver His divine message to me.
The issue was almost existential: I was trying to figure out if I wanted to take up residency in a studio somewhere, build a new studio of my own, or just quit music altogether. All musicians struggle with the decision to keep making art in the face of an increasingly hostile musical environment – and this was one of my moments of doubt and pain. This decision lasted literally months, and culminated one day in a trip to Essalunga, the Italian version of Kroger.
That day my indecisive brainstorming reached near-seizure levels. So wrapped up in decisionmaking that I could barely see straight, I went with my wife Vanessa to the grocery store. On the way I laid it all out for her. The costs, the risks, the rewards, the probabilities. I wanted to build a new studio, but the costs are high and the probability of payback is low. Conversely, I could shack up in someone else’s studio and grind out an income, but that can quickly become soul-crushing work that makes you want to gouge out your eardrums.
I was really wrapped around the axle, as we say in Rhome. As we walked up to the gleaming automatic sliding doors of the Essalunga, I desperately asked Vanessa, “how can I ever decide?!”
The doors parted, and from inside, accompanied by the swell of fuzzy synthesizers, David Lee Roth loudly proclaimed the answer to my question:
Might as well JUMP!
Go ahead and JUMP!!
There was a certain logic to the illogic, and Diamond Dave’s was the exact answer I needed. I heeded the call. I started seriously and methodically planning the design. I started assembling a new audio recorder – 48 channels of the latest Pro Tools HD, a lovely vintage “big iron” mixer from the 70s, and a pile of my favorite vintage gear. There’s old vacuum tube gear and cables piled all over the house now, while the building is currently under construction.
I fully expect to have Diamond Dave over to cut some hot tracks.
Pt. 3: Spring 2014
By now you should be asking where all this is leading.
So, Constant Reader, it was with coronary-inducing excitement that I received a call from the band this spring, asking for some help. “We’re putting out a 20th anniversary re-release of Hitchhike,” explained guitarist Ken Bethea, “but we were never really happy with the mix of that record. Would you be willing to remix some tracks?”
Remix Hitchhike to Rhome?!? One of my favorite records of all time?
Are you fucking kidding me?!?
I stammered agreement over the phone, hung up, and immediately started wondering, “where the hell am I going to mix this thing?” I had the gear, but the building wouldn’t be ready until long after the album’s release date.
I considered a number of alternatives, including mixing it at Treefort (where the last few records were mixed) or even going back to Crystal Clear and mixing it at the original studio.
But I work best when I Do My Own Thing. So finally I decided to wing it: I set up an entire studio’s worth of equipment in my bedroom – not a spare bedroom, mind you, but my bedroom, wife and all – and got to work.
It was a very mad-science endeavor – but in a way – mixing Hitchhike on a bunch of old vintage gear piled into in a bedroom is kinda perfect. And I couldn’t be more happy with the way the record came out: raw, punchy, and rowdy. I kept it real – no digital editing or “fixing” was used – and it’s an all-analog mix with all-analog gear for a big fat analog sound. When I crank it up on a good stereo, I can close my eyes and I’m standing in front of those old JBLs at Dada.
Mixing this record was a complete blast and I’m super grateful to have been a part of it. I hope everyone enjoys listening to it even half as much as I enjoyed mixing it!
Stay tuned to the Old 97s to find out about the re-release later this year.