november 2008

Next Stop: Salvation

The Old 97s' Murry Hammond Rides The Rails To Higher Ground

By David McGee


Murry Hammond in the studio during sessions for the Old 97s' latest album, Blame It On Gravity: 'Anybody that has a spiritual base or are based in faith, that's a very global thing and it informs every single thing you do. Anybody who has that it their life knows what I'm talking about-everything sort of rests on it.'
Photo by Rip Rowan

No one is going to confuse Murry Hammond's first solo album, I Don't Know Where I'm Going But I'm On My Way, with a work from the Old 97s, which is otherwise his full time job. Well, check that: maybe in its persistent traditional country sound some will hear the 97s at their rootsiest, but otherwise it's a clean break. A statement by Murry Hammond about Murry Hammond, I Don't Know Where I'm Going... is a stark, spare chronicling of spiritual longing on a spiritual journey that winds up in a place of spiritual renewal. Almost all of the songs center on or reference travel via steel rail, making it clear that Hammond, a railroad aficionado, sees the Iron Horse as the ideal vehicle for carrying him to his spiritual salvation. The odyssey culminates, in three songs at the close, not in a place of jubilation or ecstasy, but in an elevating of the spirit, as he makes abundantly clear in his closing hymn, "I Believe, I Believe."

"That's kind of what I was trying to do," Hammond says by phone from his Pasadena, CA, homeon a Sunday afternoon in October after returning from services at Burbank's First Christian Church. "I was trying to put you in an okay place, basically. I wanted the listener to be okay at the end; I think we're going to be okay in the end, and that's what I wanted to do. The song before 'I Believe, I Believe' is 'Other, Younger Day,' a calm talking-to between me and my brother, struggling with the death of a parent or the death of any loved one. Is it to make us orphans? No, it's to make us them—mothers and fathers. And the purpose of that song is you're talking about a very hard thing but it's also an easy thing. And I wanted the listener to be okay in the end. That's how the experience of losing our dad was for me. As hard as it was, there was something about it that was very okay. I was real close to my dad. I loved my dad and he is the yardstick-I feel like I instantly know how to do things that I don't even know to do because I know what he would do. We had that kind of relationship. When the whole process of his death was over, I was sorry to see the whole experience go, because I knew the experience was leaving me. It wasn't just losing the dad. It was a very strange time; I felt very cradled during that time, and it had a pleasant aspect to it and I was sorry to see that aspect go. There was so much feeling and awareness going on. I knew I could not possibly feel that much or be aware of that much again in my life. I was just a little sorry to see it pass; it was a good experience."

I Don't Know Where I'm Going... is a direct outgrowth of Hammond losing both his parents in a short span of time as well as moving from his native Texas to California to raise a family, and to what his bio refers to as a "renewed spiritual sense." Note the use of the word "renewed," implying the spiritual sense was more wayward than absent, and needed a tune-up.


'I identify some gospel music as lonelier than other gospel music. And some of it is very much a community singing song, and some of it sounds like a very solitary voice. I'm very attracted to that solitary voice and I'd like to see how I can make it sound even more solitary.'
Photo by Damon Green

"Tune-up is the right word," Hammond says. "Anybody that has a spiritual base or are based in faith, that's a very global thing and it informs every single thing you do. Anybody who has that it their life knows what I'm talking about-everything sort of rests on it. That's why they call it a 'foundation.' So it's impossible for me to write without consulting that. That's always been true. When I say there's been more of a renewed spiritual sense in the last few years, it's something...well, I've been a Christian for about 18, 20 years now, and it's always something you live with every day and think about every day, but you don't always live according to it every day. I guess maybe in the last few years I've been living more true to the things I actually believe. So that kind of happens along with certain heavy events. For me it was losing parents. Losing a mother in '98 and my dad in 2004. We had to interrupt recording with the Old 97s to deal with that—he was on machines and all that stuff and we had to unplug him. I was the executor of the will, just right in the middle of it. So lots of real transformative things like that. It seeps into you and it comes out in this music. But I had a wonderful benefit at that time. When I'm in town, which hasn't been much this year, I'll do music at an hour and a half long Bible study that happens every Wednesday night at my church out here in California. We used to be in the big rooms, we had a big PA and I'd take a reverb up there and all that. I was kind of a trustee and I had keys to the building, so I'd just go up there hours early and be by myself, set up a PA for the night, and just play, and play and play and play. And I wrote a lot of stuff during that time; not even just the stuff that's on the album, but also 97s stuff and just running through gospel song after gospel song after gospel song. And just playing. I'm 44 years old so I'm a child of the '60s, '70s and '80s as far as musical upbringing, and you grow up, there's a bridge to the old music, with the country music and the roots music, but there's also a lot of sort of sonic wildness that's gone on in those decades, and it's all kind of in all of us; anybody who's ever owned a radio, it's in you. If you write a song, whether you want to or not, there may be Pink Floyd in there along with Johnny Cash. So that's the recipe I've grown up with. When it comes time to play gospel music, I feel like I identify some gospel music as lonelier than other gospel music. And some of it is very much a community singing song, and some of it sounds like a very solitary voice. I'm very attracted to that solitary voice and I'd like to see how I can make it sound even more solitary, just to remind the listener that there's a lonely singular voice singing this, especially if it's a plaintive thing, a voice reaching up or reaching out, or calling out for help. It'd be nice if there's a scary thing going on in the song to maybe make it a little nervous to the listener, but in a beautiful way. In a way that fits into the equation of grace and redemption. I think that's what Hank Williams did, I know that's what Johnny Cash did, the Carter Family. I'm very comfortable going to that place. So I was fortunate enough during that transformation with me that I had a lot of time playing music and writing music inside a big, empty church. It's a great place to write."

Hammond is very much the "solitary voice" on his solo album. His vocals are measured, restrained and haunted, sometimes barely above a whisper, at other times floating across the soundscape in high, chilling yodels. He's playing guitars and harmonium (and electric bass on two songs), with assists on standup bass from Rob Thorsen, Mark Neil on guitar and "drums and various other noises," Philip Peeples on kick drum on Hammond's "Wreck of the 97," with Craig Packham at the drums otherwise. Hammond's voice, though, is so penetrating and chilling in its searching quality that a listener could be forgiven for thinking he was singing a cappella most of the time. That too was part of the plan—nothing gets in the way of the songs' messages.

"I love the minimalism that you get with this," he explains. "When I hear Hank Williams' music, I hear that kind of sparseness, and especially with the Carter Family and a lot of that old stuff I love. You know, there'll be something like a Hank Williams demo or acetate and it sounds like a ghost is singing. That's very moving to me, and a huge factor in my understanding of not trying to sound like that but to sing from that place. There's something about it when so much is stripped away the power of that little seed is able to come out."

In addition to his first-rate original songs penned for this project—among them three terrific tales centered on the railroad life in "Between the Switches," "Next Time Take the Train," and the loving tribute to hobo life in "Riding the Rods"—Hammond assays a group of cover songs chosen specifically to advance the statement he wanted to make. These include, fittingly, two A.P Carter songs, "I Never Will Marry" and "In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain," as well as "Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad," "You Will Often Meet Obstruction" and "As You Roll Across the Trestle" (all by Eliza R. Snow, M.E. Abbey and Charles D. Tillman), and, preceding his two original closing number, a beautiful rendering of "Rainbow's End," by Bob Nolan, poet laureate of the cowboy song whose lyrics manifested a profound belief in the presence of God as expressed in nature's beauty. Hammond says all are songs with which he's felt a long kinship.

"I've been singing those along with my songs for years. 'Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad' was something we'd had on a live Merle Haggard record, The Land of Many Churches, that my mom had when we were kids. It was a live record, and he had Mother Maybelle and the three Carter girls and the Statler Brothers. He dropped into three or four Southern churches, big ones and small ones, and that was one of the songs he sang. So ever since then I've always considered that the king of train metaphor songs. And I thought, That could really advance something. I haven't written it yet, but I know it could really advance something. So I had that in mind for a few years. And 'Clinch Mountain,' I guess the first time I ever heard the Carter Family was on the Country Music Hall of Fame collection around 1990, something like that. I went through this period of rediscovering all this roots music and country music, and that's when the 97s were born. I heard that song and there's something about it; my jaw just dropped. I don't know what it was, but I remember this distinctly. I was writing a history article in Texas on a railroad, a little small one. I was going to talk to a giant class reunion where the earliest member was class of 1928 and they cut it off at the class of '46, something like that. So these were older folks, and I was just going to tell them about my project. They lived at the end of this small, 23-mile short line railroad, and I was writing a little history of it. There was a woman who owned this railroad and it had an interesting bit of folklore to it. I had just talked to them that night and I had set up camp and put the CD in and heard this song, 'In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain.' I don't know, maybe I was in a historical frame of mind; they read the list of people who had died the year before and all the tears were going on. I was moved by all of it. And when I heard that song it kind of hit me, I don't know why. The experience came together, seeing so many of these old folks and what they meant to each other through all these years. This was a small town; not that many people moved out of it. So that got added to a collection of music in my mind, songs that belong together with a certain kind of idea. 'I Never Will Marry' was a song I just I guess I heard, it was Mother Maybelle's solo thing, some live recordings, maybe Newport, but it might have been like a Mike Seeger thing with her. But she did 'I Never Will Marry' by herself, same kind of reaction-I know this song from the Carter Family but there was something about the way she was singing it. I thought, That is so beautiful. So it got added to that collection in my mind of songs that fit next door to stuff that I was trying to write and get to anyway."

hammondHis Christian faith, Hammond says, has taught him 'to be in the community, not to convert but simply to try to be a part of a general healing of all that's broken in this world.'

The train as metaphor seals the deal in hammering home the depth of spiritual yearning in Hammond's voice. Railroading, as it turns out, is in the Hammond family blood, and so do its myths and meanings. "My two great uncles and my grandfathers worked on the railroad; my family are all farmers and railroad people two generations back. It was my mom's generation, we were the first to get out, go to the cities and that sort of thing. My dad was a model train guy and between him and my grandfather it made a train nut out of me and I've never shaken it. I have a website where I put up a lot of Texas railroad history.

"When I was young, it was all about Johnny Cash, so I learned very early what a train metaphor was and how it could be applied to many things. In the last 20 years there's been a lot of train songs coming out of me. It's easy for me to write about and sometimes if I don't feel like I know what I want to write about, I'll write a train song and then something tends to develop out of that. You can't write a train song without it being constantly symbolic about life and all that. That's kind of how it is. For some reason it's a natural place for me to go to and it's easy for me to write from that place."

The larger lesson of I Don't Know Where I'm Going... may not be as apparent to listeners as it is to Hammond, because it's a personal articulation of his commitment to live a good life according to the tenets of his Christian faith. How does his faith inform his daily life? Primarily, in its constant call to maintain vigilance on all fronts. "It's called me out," he explains, adding that being a Good Samaritan and a good steward of his moral and physical environment is his charge.

"I'm in a really good church and it's more progressive, really concerned with what it is to be a good community person," he replies. "Be a good community amongst ourselves but also to be in the community, not to convert but simply to try to be a part of a general healing of all that's broken in this world. And so it's kind of made me political again, and it's made me really mindful of the world around me in a way I probably hadn't been since I was more idealistic as a teenager. It's made me be interested in this election; it's made me be an environmentalist in a way I've never been before. It's made me concerned about our planet. A lot of Christians get tagged with that single value mindset and everything else can go to pot. It's been an opposite experience for me. It's forced my hand, like what do I really believe? It says, 'You are here on this Earth for a time. What are you going to do about all this?' I don't think anything else in my life was going to call me out like that. I think I was a pleasant enough person before, but I think it makes me a bit of a nicer person and beyond that a better citizen. It doesn't mean that there's not bunches of Southern Baptists out there thinking I'm going to Hell too, but I know very well it's making me a more responsible member of the human race. We've got some scary times on us and some scary times ahead, and it reminds you that everything you have, from your body to all your possessions, you're just renting them, it's on a lease, that's all it is, and all money is Monopoly money, and don't get too attached to it because it's just a big pile of printed paper, whether it's in a bank account or sitting on a desk in front of you. What can be done with it? So all of it is a constant reminder to think about other people, be frugal and only eat what you need and take what you need, and if somebody else can be helped along, do it. That's kind of what it is for me."

As for what's next, Hammond knows very well where he's going. "I've actually started an all-gospel record, which is deliberately trying to be a Side B to this record," he reveals. "I was trying to record it at the same time as this record, but my producer made me pick one and finish! I said, 'Well, it won't take that long.' He said, 'It'll take longer than you think. You need to go ahead and finish this and you'll be happier.' But it's absolutely along the same lines as this one."

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