Murry Hammond of Old 97’s talks about gratitude, libraries, and ‘Graveyard Whistling’
You take a hard left off the Lost Highway into the desert twilight. What caught your eye? A picket fence around a ramshackle church you coulda swore neon lights flashed from. You park, kick a whiskey bottle into the sagebrush, boot nudge God’s door open, and the place is gutted but for a jukebox. It’s not plugged in but it purrs nonetheless.
“Graveyard Whistling” is the sanguine and sly, 11th studio album of Old 97’s. It’s full of the wretched and wild finding love, the Lord, the bottle, or, in the very least, the fortitude to carry on.
When DGO called bassist and co-songwriter Murry Hammond, he couldn’t talk. He was in a library. In another life, it’s quite possible that Hammond would’ve been a government documents specialist instead of a rock star. A short callback later, we spoke with Hammond about his library-love, the new album, and living a life of gratitude.
Hell yeah, Murry Hammond loves librariesAt a library, eh?Libraries are a favorite recreation for me. I just like being in them. So, here I am.
I have this small cadre of Old 97’s fans that are archivists, librarians, and I get very excited around them. It’s kind of a great unrequited love for me. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in school. As it turned out, in hindsight, it was library science. I didn’t know that was a thing. Life took a different course. It’s like a moth to a light bulb to me. Whenever there’s a library, I like to be in them.
What’s the most beautiful library you’ve been to?I love the New York Public Library, very, very much. The main library on 42nd Street, the Schwarzman Branch, is what it’s called. That’s gorgeous. St. Louis Public Library is beautiful inside. I just got to see, for the first time, the Library of Congress ... It’s really extraordinary. The Main Reading Room looks like Hogwarts. It’s got that opulent vibe and it’s quite old. Everything is dark wood and it feels like you’re hanging out with Hermione looking up spells for next semester.
What kind of librarian do you think you’d be? Oddly enough, I think I’d be in government documents. I know my way around them. I even know how to cite complicated documents. (Laughs) I’m a complete nut, but I have books on doing proper citations, and keep up with it. I have a little reference book by my bedside in case I need to cite something.
That is the nerdiest thing I have heard all day. It goes much worse than that. It’s a book called “Cite Right.” It’s a wonderful, little reference book.
What are you writing that requires citation?I write a lot of history and local history articles. Last year, I got one of those pictorials published in the Images of America series [“East Texas Logging Railroads”]. I have a little website [the Texas Transportation Archive] on industrial and transportation history ... Lots of railroads, lot of steamboats. I’m interested in when the 19th century became the 20th century and when horse culture became auto culture.
I have a couple of very treasured photographs of blacksmith shops that just minutes before became automobile repair shops, the first auto mechanics ... I’ve been a collector of photographs for years. I have thousands of them. I think my number is about 9,000 at this point. There’s a lot of citation, a lot of proper library practices as far as doing all the meta data and I’ve sorta educated myself on it.
Getting in the musicConnecting music to book love, if you were going to recommend a book similar to your new album ,“Graveyard Whistling,” what book would you recommend?Let’s see, I would say, like Zane Grey’s darkest output or Louis L’Amour’s darkest. Or McMurtry. Something like that.
That record, there’s nothing particularly western about it but that’s what comes to my mind. There’s a tone to it, a vibe, the life and death and theological underpinnings. There’s a certain anxiety on that record that I think fits in very well with stories of light and darkness at its deeper levels.
Where does that anxiety stem from? It’s a record that’s a bit of the day after having ended a period of, let’s say, debauchery and self-abuse, that dawn between the night and the day. I know for Rhett (Miller), thematically it was a lot of writing about leaving a long life of self-inflicted pain and entering into a more sober life full of a bit more benevolence.
There’s a tension there that gets worked out in various ways over that record. Funny reference to Jesus. Not so funny references to God. That sort of thing. In that way that we always liked about Johnny Cash because there always seemed to be a battle that wasn’t quite won. You knew he was going to win but it’s not a done deal. I experience the record that way.
Will you talk more about that struggle?That struggle between dark and light is in nearly every single thing that I do, unless I write a flat-out novelty song.
Rhett’s a little better at removing himself through metaphor and pointing at things without shoving a fist at it and going, “Here!” The two things that were the most influential on songwriting for me, personally, were being a punk rock kid and Syd Barrett. The language of punk rock, it’s not metaphorical at all. If it is, it’s self-consciously doing it. It’s mostly straight to the point and yelling at you. There’s something beautiful about that that I love.
Syd Barrett, the original singer of Pink Floyd, because of his mental health rapidly deteriorating, they get this one iconic album out, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” Then he did a couple of solo records and absolutely disappeared. His songwriting completely shapes me in a way that I’ve never gotten over and it finds its way into everything. It’s something so painfully honest and I don’t even think that many people can listen to him without being uncomfortable. There’s something about honesty to the point of discomfort that I think not all great art does, but a lot of what makes certain things truly great is that deep level of emotional honesty, to the bones and down to the red blood cells.
How does the songwriting process go for you?I will say that songwriting is very uncomfortable for me. It’s really hard to do. It’s not easy. I’m very pleased about my output in this band but it doesn’t come easily. It’s a strange mental squeeze that has to happen to get it done. It’s not comfortable but I’m so happy when I finish something.
Two decades-plus and y’all have a huge discog. Any one song that you never want to set-list again? (Laughs) No, actually. The happy thing about the band is there is nothing that we’ve ever done that we wouldn’t play live if someone really wanted us to. There are songs that never ever get on the set list but it’s not because we’re done with them or they don’t have anything to do with where we’re at, it’s simply because there’s a mob of songs and some songs never see the light of day.
A lot of people get really restless about their old stuff. Our old stuff, somehow we figured out how things sit alongside each other, ya know? We’ve not replaced the it, but expanded on top of it. When you have your first album, there’s a certain amount of acreage that you’re able to run around and really all that we’ve ever done was kind of move the fences out a little bit in the world we ride in, relate to, and inhabit
And ya know, our first album, any one of those songs we know well enough that if you said, “Play the first album, right now, don’t make any mistakes, and play the whole thing,” we would be like, “OK.” And we would blow right through it easy. The muscle memory is big in this band. [Laughs] I think that comes from being big music fans and we get what’s wonderful about a band that has a family sound. Anybody that’s ever been a big Ramones fan knows that rule number one is that the Ramones should never really change their sound, ever. It would be a bummer.
People don’t want krautrock from the Ramones. [Laughs] Yeah. We don’t want prog rock or neu!
There’s something wonderful about the family sound of bands. Most people’s family sound, probably not the Ramones, but most people’s, there’s a lot of options there and I think we’ve always kinda gotten that. That that was what we do best. Not thinking we shouldn’t do something, we just don’t naturally gravitate toward anything that’s too far outside what we do.
Workin’ with heroes and gratitudeYou’ve worked with a lot of your heroes, like Waylon Jennings. Is there a musical influence, still alive, that you’d love to work with?Golly, there are so many that are gone. Johnny Cash is gone. David Bowie is gone. Joe Strummer, gone. Ya know, I don’t know.
For me, personally, it’d be interesting if all of a sudden we woke up one day and Tom Waits was interested in what we do. I don’t think he is or would be, but that’d be a nice little fantasy. Or to get a call from Loretta Lynn saying, “Oh my god, I got these songs in my head and they’re tailor made for you guys!”
How do you stay so upbeat in an art world that’s so up and down? Personally, I’m deeply grateful for this band. As a music fan, I’ve always wanted to be in a band that mattered, that was different enough to be important, at least in a footnote or chapter in a broader compendium of music sort of way. I get to be in that band, a band that continues to care about what they do.
It drives me crazy when a band stops caring about what they do but they still put out records. They should stop and leave their legacy intact. It was great that Minor Threat broke up when they did because it was the right time to do it. Black Flag were about to become a jam band so they needed to stop.
I haven’t had to have a j-o-b since 1996. I was working barbecue catering and doing office temp work and I got to quit that and do this for the rest of my life and, as it turns out, when somebody asks me someday, “What’d you do with your life?” I’ll say, “Well, Old 97’s, there was this band.” I’m very, very grateful for getting to make music and be immersed in this art world that I didn’t know would be available to me. I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I always gravitated towards this and I got to do it and it worked. I’m grateful for that. That happiness comes out and it’s just naturally always there for me.
When I get onstage, I look at people and they’re so beautiful. You look at faces and see all the humanity in front of you ... I’ll look at the crowd and see a face and it’s like seeing a painting. “That face, right there, that’s it! That’s the perfect face.” It’s so valuable. I’m happy and grateful that I’m in this life where that’s a part of my workday. I’ve had some shitty jobs in my life but that right there is part of my workday. The more you run into that the more you go, “Life is good.”
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer