In his liner notes to this collection, Robert Christgau writes "When the Old 97's were on Bloodshot, the myth was that they were 'alt-country' -- which was true in a way but misleading." True enough; while the Old 97's were one of the best and most consistently enjoyable bands to come out of the '90s alt-country boom, they sound less like hipster kids trying to nail hayseed affectations onto Replacements-esque rock & roll than the proud sons of Texas that they truly are. Like their spiritual forefathers Buddy Holly, Bobby Fuller, and Doug Sahm, the Old 97's have always been a band that can't help throwing a bit of twang into the mix (as best evidenced by Ken Bethea's guitar, which at its best splits the difference between Luther Perkins and Neil Young), but they also know a great hook when they hear it (or write it) and realize telling a good story is the best way to draw in the listener (singer and primary lyricist Rhett Miller has a way with words that makes him sound smarter than average, but like a regular guy with regular girl problems at the same time). With the passage of time, it's doubtless significant that the Old 97's' two strongest albums are Wreck Your Life, which best captures their country-accented side, and Satellite Rides, which does the same for the pop side of their vocabulary. Considering they've never won much more than a fervent cult following despite the strength of their recordings, it's a pleasant surprise that Rhino has deigned to release a greatest-hits disc, and while Hit by a Train: The Best of Old 97's isn't the ideal introduction to this band, it's a thoroughly enjoyable overview of their body of work. Hit by a Train covers the band's career prior to their recent association with New West Records (including one cut from the band's hard-to-find debut, Hitchhike to Rhome), and includes a few rarities along with the usual-suspects album cuts (most notably the brilliant Bloodshot single "Crying Drunk" and a rollicking version of Marty Robbins' "El Paso" cut for the television series King of the Hill). There isn't a dud track on this disc, through the truth is the Old 97's didn't record much material that isn't top-shelf, which points to this set's only real flaws -- anyone who is already familiar with the band is going to wonder why this song or that didn't merit inclusion, and the sequence doesn't always smooth out the distinct differences in sound and approach that dotted the five albums which provided most of this material. But there's no getting past the strength of the songs, the energy and skill of the performances, and the excellence of Miller's lyric and vocals. If you love the Old 97's, Hit by a Train will remind you why, and it will send newbies scurrying to the record shop to find out what they've been missing, and that's a powerful recommendation.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming