The Old 97's' St. Ignatius.
There are a ton of songs about or inspired by Dallas, and they say a lot about who we are. So each week in this space, we'll take a closer week at one of these songs — and we'll try to determine what, exactly, they say about this great city of ours. Check out this feature's archives here.
Before he had even graduated high school, Rhett Miller was something of a big deal locally. And, when he released his solo debut, Mythologies, during his junior year, his name began to carry a little weight nationally as well.
A few years and several failed bands later, though, things were no longer looking up. According to this 1999 Dallas Observer cover story on Miller, it was at this point that the singer very nearly gave up on music altogether.
Eventually, though, Miller would make a homemade cassette recording containing several songs that would eventually comprise the Old 97's' 1994 debut, Hitchhike to Rhome. And, when Miller's disillusionment with the Dallas music scene at the time is considered, it's easier to see where the singer is coming from on Hitchhike songs like “St. Ignatius.”
When viewed through that lens, lines like, “I've had it with Dallas, let's burn down the Palace, I'll bring the kerosene,” well, they just start to make loads more sense. But Miller's distaste for the city at that time is far from the only thing that this song reveals about the City of Dallas.
For starters, there's the song's first line and and its title, which make mention of St. Ignatius, the Spanish theologian whose name has been honored with many a Catholic-affiliated prep school around the country. Though Dallas doesn't boast a school named after the saint — Fort Worth, we'd like to point out, does — we do have a college prep school named after the Society of Jesus, which Ignatius founded in the 1500s. And, as with the Dallas-based school, members of the aforementioned order are also known as Jesuits.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Dallas' Jesuit College Preparatory School is the fact that it houses the Jesuit Museum, a gallery that contains $15 million worth of art, including pieces by well-known artists such as Salvador Dali.
Although Miller did not attend St. Ignatius — or Jesuit, for that matter — he was rather fortunate to attend St. Mark's, another Dallas prep school, during his teen years. During his time there, Miller and his classmates were not just the brightest minds in town, but by all accounts the most gifted and driven in the state. Looking at just the most recent statistics, the school has churned out the highest percentage of National Merit Scholars of any school in North Texas for the last five years. Last year, 12 percent of the school's graduating class were accepted by Ivy League schools, and, in the past decade, seven St. Mark's graduates have been Presidential Scholars, which is our country's highest academic honor.
It's obvious from a song like “St. Ignatius” that Miller was influenced by his academically high-minded peers during his time at the academy, too. We'll go out on a limb here and say that the line, “We're just shadows, just ask Plato, it was all a dream,” is probably the only time the philosopher's Allegory of the Cave has ever been referenced in an alt-country tune.
But MIller's fellow students were well-rounded as well, excelling just as much in athletics and the 42 other extracurricular clubs offered by the academy as they do in academics. For instance? Well, 15 consecutive conference titles have been won by St. Mark's wrestling team. That feat is accompanied by nine consecutive championships by the track and field team, 16 championships in the past 17 years for the swimming team, and two straight titles in soccer. Furthermore, the school's enthusiasm for extracurricular clubs was lampooned in the film Rushmore, which was co-written by St. Mark's alum Owen Wilson.
A few of the school's other notable alumni include fellow musicians Steve Miller and Boz Skaggs, Texas Monthly founder Michael Levy, National Lampoon founder Robert Hoffman, and actor Tommy Lee Jones.
It's quite possible, though, that this classic Old 97's song's opening line is about another St. Ignatius school entirely: In keeping with the theme of Miller wanting nothing more than to leave Dallas behind at the time of the song's initial penning, one must consider the fact that the line might refer to the St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago. At the time, Miller's other band, Killbilly, was beginning to attract some attention from the Chicago-based label Bloodshot Records, which was taken with the band's action-packed live shows.
Eventually, though, through extensive touring through the Midwest, it was the Old 97's who were eventually signed to the label — just prior to the release of their sophomore effort, Wreck Your Life. And, while many songs in the band's cannon reference Dallas, just as many seem to mention Chicago and New York. That much makes sense: Miller has called New York home for over a decade now, and, from the band's early days, they've always considered Chicago something of a second home.
That's how the band ended up with a cameo in 2006's Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston film, The Break Up And it's why a 2011 Old 97's show preview in the Chicago Tribune even went so far as to call the event a “homecoming of sorts.”
These days, when the Old 97's aren't touring, the band's members live all across the country: Guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples still call Dallas home, but, like Miller, bassist Murry Hammond has too bolted from Dallas for the coast, having settled in California.
Ask the band members themselves, though, and they'll tell you: No matter where they live at any given time, Dallas remains their collective home.