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In nod to Old 97′s, Dallas band Ottoman Turks plans a ‘Tour of Deep Ellum’

Two decades after the 97′s took a lap around the neighborhood, another homegrown group plans to do the same.

Back when Ottoman Turks were still wannabe musicians playing in the garage of front man Nathan “Mongol” Wells in 2009, they knew one thing for certain about the local music scene: AllGood Cafe was a place respected musicians played.

To perform at AllGood, you had to have made a little name for yourself in Dallas, or, at the very least, done something to impress owner Mike Snider, who used to book and promote shows at Sons of Hermann Hall and the now-closed Gypsy Tea Room. But anyone could stop by for lunch, talk music or take in the countless concert posters that make up a sort of Deep Ellum Hall of Fame.

Which poster young musicians find themselves gravitating toward might serve as something of an omen for how they’ll go about making their name in the city. For Wells, it was a poster from 2001 of the Old 97′s Tour of Deep Ellum, a two-night stand in which the Dallas natives, by that point a national success, returned home for performances at Trees and Gypsy Tea Room. That one always drew his attention.

Much surrounding those two nights has been lost to time, including any reviews, descriptions or footage of the 97′s’ shows. Or the fact that lead guitarist Ken Bethea — who conceived of the idea after hearing Reverend Horton Heat did something similar in the early ‘90s — had originally wanted the tour to include Sons of Herman Hall and Bar of Soap before it was whittled down to two shows. Or the record label drama happening at the same time which nearly forced the 97′s to split up. The AllGood poster is perhaps the only scrap of evidence that remains.

The poster for the of the Old 97′s Tour of Deep Ellum in 2001 hangs on the wall of AllGood...
The poster for the of the Old 97′s Tour of Deep Ellum in 2001 hangs on the wall of AllGood Cafe. The Dallas natives, by that point a national success, returned home for performances at Trees and Gypsy Tea Room.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

In 2013, Ottoman Turks headlined a set at AllGood Cafe.

“That was the first venue in Deep Ellum where I think we actually had a crowd,” said bassist Billy Law.

“We packed the place out,” Wells remembered. “We were like, ‘We’ve made it. We’re Dallas musicians now.’”

Nearly 10 years later, they have solidified that claim, having sold out gigs all over Deep Ellum and the rest of Dallas-Fort Worth. And on Aug. 11–14 Ottoman Turks will re-create the Tour of Deep Ellum, this time with four consecutive shows, as Bethea had intended, at Three Links, AllGood Cafe, Double Wide and Twilite Lounge. The tour’s poster is a nearly identical re-creation of the one 21 years earlier.

“It’s such a fun idea that’s been in the back of my mind,” Wells said. “It seemed like after all these years it was time to make it happen.”

‘Chaotic and fun’

The original Tour of Deep Ellum might have been seen as something of a victory lap for the Old 97′s. They had released their fifth studio album earlier that year. They’d been enjoying their greatest commercial success up to that point, were touring nationally, became the poster band for the “alt-country” genre and appeared on The Tonight Show a few months prior.

But Deep Ellum was where it had all started for the group. The Old 97′s played venues along Elm, Main and Commerce relentlessly in the early-to-mid ‘90s, an era when the neighborhood also produced bands such as Tripping Daisy and Toadies.

“It’s such a fun idea that’s been in the back of my mind,” Wells said of the tour. “It...
“It’s such a fun idea that’s been in the back of my mind,” Wells said of the tour. “It seemed like after all these years it was time to make it happen.”(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

“For me, every venue in Deep Ellum had its own appeal,” said Rhett Miller, the band’s songwriter and front man.

The Old 97′s were regulars at Naomi’s, a long since closed bar on Canton Street that Miller said, “literally could not have been any smaller and have been a functioning bar.”

One night at Naomi’s, Miller stuck the microphone in his mouth and lost a tooth pulling it out. “Everybody there was at risk of getting hit by the blood that came out of my mouth when the tooth came out,” Miller said.

The band scaled up to every size venue the neighborhood had to offer before booking shows all over the country.

If Ottoman Turks share a quality with the Old 97′s, it’s the distillation of Deep Ellum’s overflow of live music, frenetic pace and disregard for genres. Their songs blend country, rock and some sort of cowboy punk. It’s as if Tom Waits, Steve Earle, and Jack White got in a fight in a recording studio — and all of them won.

“I would like to think that, while we’re not the same genre [as the Old 97′s], we have the same vibe: chaotic and fun,” Law said.

In the re-created tour, the AllGood Cafe and Twilite Lounge shows are likely to be slightly less boisterous and will involve bringing musician friends on stage for surprise performances, an element of camaraderie Ottoman Turks wanted to carry on from the original tour. Both Pleasant Grove, the band that played Trees on the original tour, and Sorta, which played Gypsy Tea Room, were rising Dallas groups in 2001. The Old 97′s lent them opening slots to give them a larger platform.

“At the time, that was probably one of the biggest shows that Pleasant Grove had ever played,” said Jeff Ryan, Pleasant Grove’s drummer.

The band Sorta, which became a Dallas favorite, was founded by Trey Johnson, who died earlier this year of health complications. He was also the co-founder of State Fair Records, Ottoman Turks’ record label, and a vocal champion of the band.

The Three Links show will include the bands King Clam and Cliffs. “Cliffs are like our brothers,” Wells said.

“Soulmates,” said Law.

It’s Double Wide, though, on the outskirts of Deep Ellum, that’s nurtured Ottoman Turks’ chops as a rowdy, live band suited to win over eclectic crowds. It is their Naomi’s.

“We wouldn’t exist as a band if Double Wide hadn’t given us all those opportunities,” Wells said. “We’ve probably played there 20 times.”

“Way more than that,” Law corrected, doing the math. “I would say closer to 40 or 50.”

“You’re right, I guess we’re old now,” said Wells, 30.

‘That’s the story of how a band breaks up’

When Wells gazed at the Old 97′s poster in AllGood, he imagined a band on top of the world, but the reality was more complicated for the group.

While the Old 97′s’ March 2001 album, Satellite Rides, was their first to chart on the Billboard Top 200, music download software like Napster was changing the industry landscape, and the group’s label, Elektra Records, was reacting.

Ken Bethea, left, and frontman Rhett Miller of Old 97's perform during the Dia De Los...
Ken Bethea, left, and frontman Rhett Miller of Old 97's perform during the Dia De Los Toadies festival at Panther Island Pavillion in Fort Worth in 2014.(Jim Tuttle / Staff Photographer)

“The record industry was at the beginning of its slow collapse,” Miller said.

Eventually, nearly everyone they had worked with directly at Elektra was let go. Satellite Rides had also completed their three-album contract.

Bethea said it was before a show in Chicago when Miller requested the four members meet at a cafe alone. Lunch among only the four was rare; they were close friends, but crew members and others usually lingered as well. Bethea and drummer Phillip Peeples still lived in Dallas, but Miller and bassist Murray Hammond had moved away.

At the cafe, Miller told the three that the record label was dropping the band, but was keeping him on as a solo act.

“That’s the story of how a band breaks up, right?” said Bethea.

Miller’s songwriting had long stood out to listeners. To Bethea, a Rhett Miller solo career seemed destined to overshadow the 97′s as a whole. The band had lasted eight years. Other groups from their era in Dallas had already broken up or were on the wrong end of a peak by 2001.

The Tour of Deep Ellum had already been organized before the meeting in Chicago. But now it took on a different tone. It seemed the band would be finishing things, right back where they started.

“There is no doubt that is what we were thinking and talking about,” Bethea said.

Fears of a breakup eventually proved unwarranted. True, Miller has enjoyed a successful solo career. But since the Deep Ellum tour in 2001, the Old 97′s have released 14 albums together. Later this month they will play a run of shows with the Turnpike Troubadours.

“I think there’s probably something to be said for that tour of Deep Ellum being a factor in helping us remember how much we loved each other,” Miller said.

Bethea, who is in a board game group with Ottoman Turks drummer Paul Hinojo, said that he “100 percent” will be in attendance for one of the Deep Ellum shows next week.

Having played together for years, Ottoman Turks now face their own individual pursuits, similar to the 97′s. Wells and Law both have solo albums coming out. And Joshua Ray Walker, who performed on The Tonight Show in February, won’t be with the band in Deep Ellum due to obligations from his solo tour. The band was a three-piece before Walker joined and are well-equipped to perform live without him.

But the Tour of Deep Ellum is no last hurrah for Ottoman Turks. They are currently writing and working on material for a third album.

“To me, the Turks will be forever,” Law said.

It’s a confidence that Miller also took into those Deep Ellum shows.

“I never thought the 97′s were going to split up,” Miller said. “I knew that it was rough, but I always believed, and still do, in the collective vision.”

When Ottoman Turks play loud, chaotic music all over Deep Ellum next weekend, it will be partly as tribute and partly because it is what they’re good at. If history repeats itself, they have a lot of music left in them.

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