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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“I swear that I saw God” in the Old 97’s “Doreen”

Illustration for article titled “I swear that I saw God” in the Old 97’s “Doreen”

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking songs that have a person’s name in the title.


Old 97’s, “Doreen” (1994)

The best part of the Old 97’s song “Doreen” isn’t that there are two versions, one bluegrass and one rock: It’s that they’re both so damn good. The former appeared on the group’s first studio album, 1994’s Hitchhike To Rhome, and the rocked-out version came just a year later on Wreck Your Life, the spiritual precursor to 1997’s nearly perfect Too Far To Care. One of the mainstays of mid-’90s alt-country, the band’s best songs are a little bit like “Doreen,” with a catchy tune and a rollicking narrative.

The Old 97’s and I share a hometown, Dallas, though when these albums came out, I was unfortunately still listening to mainstream country. Still, I knew of the group by name, and when I came to my senses a few years later, “Doreen” was one of the songs that made me fall in love with the band. Its mid-’90s output shared mainstream country’s deep connections to old-school C&W, but instead of just borrowing the occasional slide guitar, Old 97’s respected and re-interpreted its roots.

And yet “Doreen” is still a long way off from a “tear in my beer”-style country song, as the narrator tells the tale of tossing back whiskey sours in a New York bar with a barely 17-year-old girl. After a wild night together, the narrator takes off in his tour van, where he becomes increasingly paranoid that Doreen is “laying in the arms of a man I’d never seen.” Though the twang-rock version better matches the frenzy of a man trying to find a gas-station pay phone to call Doreen, the bluegrass version beautifully contrasts delicate banjo against frontman Rhett Miller’s roughhewn voice. The song, written by Miller and Old 97’s bassist-vocalist Murry Hammond, mashes together the forlorn-lover and travelin’-man tropes, forming an inventive and vivid story about the mythical Doreen. With turns of phrase like “You can roll your eyes and nod / But I swear that I saw God / In the moonlight on a side street in the wreckage we call Queens,” the song is the Old 97’s at its very best.