Interview with Murry Hammond of the Old 97ís
As interviewed by Ben Squires
Monday, March 22, 2004
Thanks to the year we lived
in San Ramon, California, outside of San Francisco/Oakland, I was introduced
to a lot of great music through a tremendous radio station, KFOG.
One artist that really caught my attention was the Old 97ís. This was 1999,
the year the band released Fight Songs.
The Old 97ís are deep from
the heart Texas, with full-country twangexcept that it is tempered
by a lot of rock Ďní roll. This is Alt.Country at its finest. Sure, you
could label them as country, but why would you? If you are like me, calling
it country music leaves the wrong impression when trying to talk about
a band that can jam, that rocks, and that moves beyond the twang to incorporate
After moving to Manitowoc,
Wisconsin, I got the chance to see the Old 97ís in concert at Shank
Hall in Milwaukee. It was April 11, 2001. Yeah, it was Wednesday night
of Holy Week. Sure, thatís the busiest week in the church for a pastor,
but I wasnít going to let that stop me from seeing a great show.
I ended up using the story
of that nightís concert as a
sermon. You can click over to my sermon site to read the story. Even
if youíre not into sermons and all of that, you might get a kick out the
story which is the first part of the story. This sermon may also help some
who have asked how a pastor could be into some of this music, music that
you wouldnít guess a pastor listens to.
(Ben Squires sent an email
to the band telling them about the sermon and Murry Hammond (bassist and
vocalist) wrote back.)editor.
Murry Hammondís email
to Ben Squires:
I clicked over to your
sermon that incorporated your experience of seeing the band in Milwaukee.
I read it aloud to my wife who enjoyed it as well.
Ya know, my wife and
I are devout Christians, fairly non-denominational in our choice of church,
which is the Disciples of Christ. Best we can figure, we're a couple houses
down from the Baptists and we're a few neighborhoods over from the Pentecostals.
If you do ever hear from
Jake, have him shoot me an e-mail. I'd be glad to back up everything you
were telling him at the show. Especially from someone who has cleaned up
his own life a good bit, and has dealt true guilt with the mechanics forgiveness,
i.e. what Jesus was trying to get across us so many times.
Come up and say hi sometime,
and God bless.
Murry Hammond also agreed
to do an email interview about his music and faith. Here is what he had
to say to Music Spectrum,
Ben Squireís blog.
Music Spectrum: Who are
the top 5 artists that influence your music?
Murry Hammond (MH): Beatles,
Hank Williams, Carter Family, and Johnny Cash. The fifth would be the artists
and sounds of the early decades of recorded music, the '20s and '30s for
hillbilly and what they call old-time music, and '50s and '60s for rock
'n' roll and country music.
Spectrum: Knowing how important
music is as teenagers, what was your favorite album when you were fifteen?
How does that album rank in your collection today?
Hammond: I was obsessed with
The Carsí first album, and Iím pretty sure I wore that album out. Today,
I donít even own a copy of it, and I donít think Iíve heard the whole thing
since the early '80s. I still love The Cars when I hear them on someone
elseís player, though. Philip had a good Cars Greatest Hits on rotation
when we cut Too Far to Care.
Spectrum: I organize my
music in a spectrum of sound, trying to place artists near others who have
a similar style, influences, etc. I've put the Old 97s in the Alt.Country
category. What artist should be to your left on the spectrum, which is
more to the traditional country side? What artist should be to your right
on the spectrum, which is more to the rock side?
Hammond: I imagine weíd have
the ,'50s country various section on one side, and some '60s beat music
or '80s punk-ish indie music on the rock Ďní roll side. Our songs are often
products of our 80s indie years when we were first forming bands with each
other and with other people. And our childhoods were full of the rock Ďní
roll and country sounds of the '50s, '60s and '70s. Go ahead and put Johnny
Cash on the left, and The Clash on the right.
Spectrum: Many Christians
would react strongly against many of the topics in Old 97s songs (sex,
drugs, and rock 'n' roll). How do you see your Christian faith fitting
together with your music? Where are there signs of grace in your songs
(The need for God's unconditional love or examples of people showing that
love to one another)?
Hammond: These are good questions,
too, and are going to require a longish answer, so bear with me. I like
talking about this stuff, so Iím just going to note down my thoughts as
they come. But first I want to say that Iím happy to have the opportunity
to talk about all this in this forum. In general, Iím not asked about songwriting
in any meaningful way in interviews, so Iím happy to oblige the question.
There are going be a lot of people who are non-Christian people, or are
on the fence, who will be reading this so before I begin, let me say a
couple of things. First, if I call God He or Him I do it out of habit,
and out of needing a handy way to talk, in a way that people are used to
reading. That includes the capital Hís on the Heís and Himís I use that
because of my deep reverence for who Iíll be discussing. I donít think
God is male in nature, and I donít think there is gender where He resides.
I understand God to have characteristics that are equally feminine and
masculine. Also, if it helps you to substitute the word Goodness for God
then go right ahead. God is my personification of all goodness, love and
life, and in my experience, i.e. as it has been revealed to me, Jesus was
the human face of that divine source of goodness, and I believe Jesus was
who He said He was.
My faith is the most significant
thing in my life. Itís the main thing that fuels my engines, so to speak.
While I am most definitely still a work-in-progress, I think Iím kinder
to people because of my pursuit of God, I know my marriage is better for
it, and I think Iím a more honest songwriter because of it. How some writers
can discuss their craft without getting into their most important influence
is beyond me. Creativity is one of the fundamental elements of Godís character,
so how can you separate the faith of the writer from his or her writing?
Personally, I tend to write
the same song, every time. I write about redemption. I got a pile of them!
My life has been a cycle of moving toward God, then moving away, then toward
Him again, so redemption plays itself out over and over again in my life.
In every song I write, I illuminate some part of that ongoing dialogue
between the Almighty and myself, of being restless, or injuring myself
then being healed by God, of feeling alienated or disenfranchised in some
way, then finding connection and hope in the upward reach.
Song-wise, this might flesh
itself out in a general light hobo tale of regret and longing, such as
in ďWest Texas Teardrops.Ē Or some more lonesome place as in ďOld Familiar
Steam,Ē where redemption exists only as a small point of light that could
either grow or extinguish altogether. I donít resolve it by the end of
that song, instead, the character moves the bigger questions on down the
line, and the train rolls on with no pilot.
But what happens most in
my writing, is Iíll put a microscope on a specific part of the redemption
story, such as with the character in ďUp the Devils Pay,Ē who is struggling
with his dark and light sides. Imagine that the act of crying out to God
can be shown as a strip of film, say, a scene where a man realizes his
need for God, reaches upwards, God meets him and the man is transformed.
I tend to not write so much about the entire sequence, such as Hank Williams
did with ďI Saw the Light,Ē but rather, I will zero in on a portion or
even a single frame and describe where that character lives and what he
is feeling. As much as I ponder writing about the portion of the sequence
where God lives to give grace to the hurting world, I tend to write my
songs back toward the beginning of the film, where the man first realizes
and struggles over his need to be redeemed. How can you tell the whole
story of redemption without telling about the poor creature that needed
it in the first place? That human end of redemption is not often written
about in a way which attempts to really move the listener, at least not
in modern Christian music, but this is what I most often attempt to do.
I feel that I hit occasional bulls-eyes there, and people respond instinctually,
at a soul level, and they get it. And grace is illuminated in some way.
I just feel most strongly in my heart for the regular person who is hurting,
and is searching for a home.
Speaking of Hank Williams,
I think itís worth taking a look at some of the greatest writers weíve
seen this century - my favorites - Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and the
Carter Family. They all had a spooky ability to connect with us in an absolutely
direct way, in a deeply personal way, and thus in a universal way. And
they all shared a deep faith in God. That faith lays interwoven in all
their most personal music, from the gospel hymns of redemption and celebration,
to the emotional depth and tenderness they convey when they write about
all us outlaws. They are my example of the ideal songwriter: fearless,
unashamed, champions of raw humanity, and longing deeply for a better world
If you can name it, Iíve
done it, short of killing someone, I suppose. Or, if Iíve ever helped put
someone into office who has ever ordered military action or approved an
execution, perhaps I have murder on my hands, too. For the sake of my own
soul, my faith directs me to shine a light into all that was formerly dark.
Iím fortunate that songwriting is an outlet for me. Everyday I reach out
of the dark towards the light, and I struggle to fight the good fight.
Iím on the winning side only when I lean on God instead of my own strength.
So Iím going to sing about that, in my way.
All people take music very,
very personally, and Christians are no different. Some might ask why would
a musician of faith write and sing about anything else but God? Why would
anything other than a song of praise escape the lips of a follower of Christ?
To me, itís much like a calling to ministry: Why arenít these children
of God plunging themselves into ministry? Because some are given talents
that call them to step up on the pulpit, while most of us are called according
to our other talents. We are called to put our light up where we live in
our homes, among our neighbors, in the office buildings, in the schools,
in the coal mines, as writers, as truck drivers, as artists, railroaders,
Depending on the denomination,
Iím either a fine warrior of our Lord for confessing the things of my very
human heart, or Iím going straight to hell for ever singing about anything
else but praise songs. In this world, our compass points toward Jesus but
thatís where the commonality between us Christians ends and dissolves into
debate. I guarantee you, it will all line up on the other side.
Sex, drugs and rock Ďní
rollthatís a bumper sticker. Jesus didnít speak or act that way He
rolled up his sleeves and helped people. He healed the sick, comforted
the lonely, fed the hungry, healed our hearts, and commanded to us to do
the same for each other. He demonstrated by example and by words in his
parables. But no catchy phrases, just memorable words meaningful enough
to paint on your bumper forever.
Spectrum: Going back to
sermon about Jake at your show, what would you tell Jake if he asked
you about your faith?
Hammond: Well, if youíre
like me, you want to start simple, then work out from there! My favorite
Bible story relates to your conversation with Ben, and what he wanted to
get across to you about the nature, and character of Gods love for us.
This story moves me every time I read it, or repeat it, and goes like this:
First the backdrop and you
out there may already know this but - Jesus revealed to some people that
He was sent from God to be the great healer of the world. Word spread fast,
and this news was received with mixed reaction. Some people felt like He
was telling the truth about Himself, that He was who He said He was, and
they followed Him throughout his brief ministry. Many people witnessed
miracles and heard many wonderful discussions explaining Gods law and love
for us. They would write about their experiences later, which is why we
know this story. But there were many that didnít believe Him, and wanted
to show Him up for the imposter they felt He was. Jesus preached a new
covenant, i.e. a new agreement between God and man. Many of the laws of
the Old Testament had been interpreted still are interpreted to this day
to be license for revenge, violence and oppression against others, and
in Gods name. Jesus said He came to clarify the law of the Old Testament,
to show that the true character of God was one of compassion, forgiveness
and love, and that we should do the same for each other. His enemies felt
strongly that these teachings contradicted the old laws, and saw Jesus
as a revolutionary seed, that would destroy their culture from the foundation
Well, Jesus was in the temple
one day praying, and talking with people. Those that were against Him brought
before Him a woman who they said had been caught red-handed in the very
act of adultery, which in those days might have meant she was cheating
on her husband, or simply having pre-marital sex
They asked Jesus what should
be done with her. Because the Jewish law said that this woman should be
stoned, they felt that any answer Jesus gave was the wrong answer. If He
said forgive this woman, He was in violation of the Jewish law which people
believed was handed directly from God; If He said stone this woman He was
contradicting his own teachings of forgiveness and compassion.
Jesus said, ďLet he who
is without sin, cast the first stone.Ē
We read that one by one,
the crowd of people filed out of the temple, and that the woman was not
stoned that day.
When there was only Jesus
and the woman left in the temple, Jesus asked her, ďWoman, where are your
She said, ďNo man here,
Jesus said, ďNeither do
I accuse you. Go, and sin no more.Ē
Jake, this grace and forgiveness
was what Ben wanted to leave with you that night at our show. Not from
man, but from God, comes peace, redemption, forgiveness, and grace. Itís
between you and Him. None of us have any say in it. We're in the same boat
as you. It was not in the power of that crowd at the temple to forgive
that woman. Jesus dethroned those people from their self-appointed position
of judgment, and they left that temple with their hypocrisy placed directly
in front of them. Hopefully at least some of them chewed on it, and came
to have a greater understanding of Gods grace and forgiveness, just as
that woman surely did when her life was spared by life-saving grace.
Spectrum: How do the other
band members respond to your Christian faith? Is it something shared? Is
it a source of tension or respect?
Hammond: Never has been a
source of tension. Everyone in this band has, at some gut or skin level,
some notion and relationship with God, so they respect that I pursue Him
in the open. Like many people, they are trying to extract out of all the
noise just what real evidence of a loving God they can take to heart. And
there is a lot of noise out there. The only Christians that ever seem to
get spotlighted on television or in the papers are the televangelists,
the scandalized, the misguided believers who let worldly fears warp their
walk into extremism, racism, sexism, of the worst order, all under the
banner of Christianity.
But you know how the real
heroes of Christianity are they donít show up on the news. They are rarely
documented outside their own families or communities or home churches.
They do their work quietly, with the sort of love that is tested by time
and perseverance. Some of them canít even read and donít hardly have a
cent to their name, but they change whole neighborhoods and communities.
The South is full of them, and I imagine the North and the West is full
of them, too. They are never raised up before man, but they inspire deep
changes in the people around them. They donít seek to control or dominate
or oppress anyone. They take to heart the commandment that Jesus gave us
to love each other fearlessly, period. These children of God plant seeds
that grow over a lifetime and bear much fruit. Ultimately, the light that
is in them shines in a way that is hard to deny, even among those with
Iím not one of these great
warriors, no sir. But I have figured out one good thing I can do for my
band mates, and that is to simply to give them a safe place to bring that
most private part of themselves to, without judgment or ridicule. They
know they can open up to me about God, and occasionally weíll visit that
place together, in different ways for each guy. It has been a positive
experience between my band mates and my self. They are pretty good guys.
You know what they say,
Some plant seeds, some tend seeds, some harvest. Weíre just tending seeds
Thanks to Murry for his
time and sharing his thoughts. Go to www.old97s.com
for info about their new release, Drag It Up, due out on July 27.
Murrys wife, Grey Delise, has released her album, Graceful Ghost,
on www.Sugar Hill Records.com. Her husband says: ďIf you enjoy old-time
music with a good gospel lean played on old autoharps and whatnot, you'll
like it very much.Ē