Back in the second Clinton Administration, when No Depression proudly billed itself as “The Alternative Country (whatever that is) bi-monthly magazine,” no band seemed to carry more potential to bring this music into the mainstream with its integrity intact than Old 97′s. Solidifying its four-man lineup in Dallas in 1993, the band — an amalgamation of the Meat Puppets, Johnny Cash and the Tennesse Two, The Replacements, Merle Haggard, and yeah, okay, The Beatles — released a couple of albums on Chicago’s fine “insurgent country” label Bloodshot Records before being called up to the majors. The trio of albums they made for Elektra Records circa 1997-2001 (including Too Far to Care, widely regarded as their pinnacle) mostly delighted critics and fans, but failed to move units in major-label volume.
By the time of 2004′s oft-maligned Drag It Up, the 97s were back on the more specialized New West label, even as their frontman, Rhett Miller, had launched a solo career that threatened to eclipse his work with the band.
While Miller — he of the pretty-boy good looks and the sad-sack, smarty-pants lyrics — gets most of the attention, the 97s’ appeal has always resided in its chemistry, particularly between Miller and bassist/second vocalist Murry Hammond. Hammond is The Edge to Miller’s Bono — the steady, modest, ingratiating talent who makes his higher-profile collaborator’s excesses palatable. Two decades after his collaboration with Miller began, Hammond has finally released a solo album of his own, I Don’t Know Where I’m Going, but I’m on My Way, concurrent with the 97s’ Blame It on Gravity, their strongest effort in a decade. The 97s played a fundraiser at SONAR in Baltimore last week to benefit Barrack Obama’s presidential campaign in Ohio. I sat down with Hammond before the Obama gig to talk about his solo record, the history and origins of the 97s, the creative necessity of loneliness, and why he mostly prefers music without lyrics these days, thank you very much. Hammond performs at IOTA in Arlington next Monday.
You’ve been singing a song or two on each Old 97s album at least as far back as Too Far Too Care in 1997. What made you decide that the time had come to do a solo record?
I’d been meaning to do a solo record for a long time. I started out with my own band and wrote songs like crazy. In fact, Rhett’s first two gigs were opening up for my band that I had in the 80s.
I thought about it for a long time. It took me a while to feel like I had the right to be a solo person. You really want to have something to say; some particular artistic eye or worldview that matches what’s inside of you. And I wasn’t gonna stick my head up before I really felt like I had a voice. It took me a while to find a voice I really wanted. I have it now. I guess I’ve had it for a while with the 97s, but it’s a whole ‘nother step to say “Okay, I’m gonna stand by myself; have my own CDs, do my own shows, travel around by myself, the whole bit.” That’s a whole commitment.
The Old 97′s share songwriting credit on all their material. What’s your role in the writing of songs for the band? Are the 97′s songs you sing the ones to which you’ve written the lyrics?
We all don’t live in the same city. We haven’t since about three years into the band. Generally, we finish things up to a point where either they enter the band and don’t change much at all before they’re recorded, or the band gets hold of them and they sort of do things, especially in the arrangements. Rhett and I will often take each other’s ideas and finish them into songs. Of course, if I’m singing a song, I’ve probably written the whole thing.
Exceptions to that are, like, “Crash on the Barrelhead,” where Rhett had a song, and I just didn’t think the chorus was right. So I wrote a whole new chorus on it, and I liked singing it so much that I asked him [for it]. I felt like, “I’m the voice on this song. It’s coming from me.” And Rhett said, “Yeah, yeah.” Basically Rhett and I write separately, but we’ll get together on a song or two per record and truly co-write. On [Blame It on Gravity], it was “My Two Feet.”
A lot of times, I’ll have tunes and I’m just not having any luck with the words. And since Rhett’s such a wordsmith, I’ll say “All right, I’ve worked on this for years. I give up. You want to take a crack at it?” And he’ll have something. A good example of that would be “Timebomb.” That was a song I had written in 1991 with, really, not very good lyrics at all. I just didn’t know what it was about. And Rhett made “Timebomb” out of it.
That’s one of the quintessential 97s tunes.
Yeah, I’m very proud of that. It’s a big tune. “New Kid,” from [Drag It Up], was one of those moments, too, and “Old Familiar Steam,” which actually Rhett ended up wanting to sing himself. We felt like that was in his voice. So when we do co-write, it works out very well, but mostly we write by ourselves.
Is it true that you and Rhett met when you produced a solo album for him in the late 80s, when he was still a teenager?
Rhett and I met each other because in October of 1986 I started dating a girl named Jennifer, who told me about her friend Jennifer, who was playing in a folk trio with Rhett. It was like a Kingston Trio. Actually, it was like Peter, Paul and Mary, because there was another guy, Rhett, and this girl. And I saw them play. Rhett was 16 years old at this time.
I just really liked his songs. They’re weren’t brilliant, but they were good. He was writing songs the way The Beatles might have written when they first got together. You know: Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle break, chorus, out. Whereas a lot of music at that time was getting kind of large. New Wave had turned into giant, bloated things like The Alarm and The Cure and Bauhaus and U2. It was all very big, big, big. And he was writing small. Heartfelt. I took to it right away.
We struck up a friendship, and like I said, his first two gigs was opening up for the band I had at the time, which was kind of like a Butthole Surfers kind of crazy Texas psychedelic thing. He did a couple of shows with us, then struck out on his own. But we started the creative friendship then. When it came time for him to do his first solo record, all he had was a cassette of him playing these songs. He asked me if I’d produce it, and we made a record out of it.
When it came time to do a second record, that became our first band together. That’s when we really started playing together.
We actually got a CD out of that thing. That was called Sleepy Heroes. The band broke up two days before we got our CDs. The CDs were on the way, and Rhett decided he didn’t want to be in Sleepy Heroes any more. We didn’t play together for about a year after that, and then we just kind of started again. A couple of misfires later, we broke it all down and formed the Old 97′s.
How did Philip and Ken enter the picture?
What happened was Rhett and I were doing, basically, a very unsatisfying grunge band. [Laughs.] It sounded grungy; I don’t know that the grungers would accept us.
This was in the early 90s?
Yeah, 1991 and ’92. And we had turned into something that we always used to make fun of: Somebody who’s chasing popularity at local clubs. Somebody who really cared what other people thought. And thinking that a record deal was the almighty thing to go for. It was very frustrating.
There was a day when I went and bought an acoustic bass — I was playing bass in this band of ours — and I had made up my mind that we had to break up this band and do something different. Rhett was feeling bluesy about everything, too. He played me a little song at a place we used to play pool at down in Deep Ellum in Dallas, Texas; downtown where the music happens. As it happened, later on, that would be the first song on the first Old 97′s record. It was called “St. Ignatius.”
It was so opposite of everything we’d gotten ourselves tangled up in at that point. So simple, and heartfelt, and country. I thought, “That’s it. That’s the future.” Just making music the way you’re supposed to; for the original, pure reason you started. I didn’t want to see a drummer. I only wanted to play coffeehouses and small bars and fraternal lodges, and basically shun the world we had been in forever and forever.
Well, our guitar player, Ken [Bethea] — the guy who would be our guitar player — he moved across the hall from us! Rhett and I were roommates, and Ken moved across the hall. And we noticed this rockabilly-looking guy playing accordion on the front steps of the apartment. It was one of those old buildings, kind of like Melrose Place, where you get to know everybody. Rhett got together with him, and told me he sounded great with the songs we were doing, and so we were a trio for a little while, about eight or ten months or so.
Philip was Ken’s friend. They talked me into giving a drummer a chance.
[And here I must apologize to Old 97's drummer Philip Peeples, because about a minute of audio wherein Murry discussed how Philip came to join the band is corrupt and indecipherable on my recording of our conversation. Sorry, Philip!]
Have there been any times in the 15 years since the band came together that you feel you’ve lost sight of that direction that you’d searched for for so long?
No. There’ve been times when we weren’t as hungry as other times. Not really hungry for success or anything like that. But there’s a bit of an edge to your life that makes your better music; makes stuff that’s more close to the bone, more real and lasting in your mind.
There were times when we probably got a little too comfortable with things. It didn’t have a bad effect on us, but I know that we’ve also come back at a moment where there was adversity and an edge to our experience, our daily experience. That always does good things for writing music. I don’t ever want to lose that. I’ve gotten that back. I’ve had it back for years. And I’ve learned to hold on to it. Not by faking a hard life or anything; I’ve got a good life. But I’ve learned to pay attention to things that don’t go away, like restlessness and things like that. I’ve learned to embrace those things in an artistic way, as a songwriter does.
This band, pretty much all the way down the line, has been pretty good for us. And pretty satisfying to be in. I like all of our records.
To return to your solo record, I Don’t Know Where I’m Going but I’m on My Way, one of the first things that struck me about is how private it sounds. When I started hearing 97s records years ago, I could tell Rhett wasn’t a songwriter who was afraid of sounding silly, with the way he sometimes uses silly couplets and childrens’ phrases and things like that. But there’s a different kind of vulnerability to the sound of your record, lyrically and sonically.
For whatever reason, I really do my best stuff playing is if nobody’s ever going to hear the song I’m doing. I never think about how a song is going to be heard by anybody else. I guess it’s an easy thing to say, but it’s true. It’s easy for me to forget that it’s going to be heard. I’m used to just writing these things that are in my head, that sort of go on all the time, like a little soundtrack. And then occasionally I realize, oh yeah, that it all will be spit out for somebody to listen to. So it does end up being very private, almost as if you’re writing under a stairwell or something. [Laughs.] I’m just one of those people — I write better songs when I’m in that place than I do trying to write something happier.
I’ve got a song on Blame It on Gravity called “This Beautiful Thing.” I love playing that song for my wife in our living room. We worked it up as a band, but I don’t know that it works as well. I’ve got a song on that record called “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue.” That’s one of those songs; it’s written from a bloody place of regret. I’m just better at doing that kind of thing. The song I wrote for my wife is a sweet song to play to her on the couch. But with the band, it doesn’t hit as hard. And I’m aware of that. I actually just put that song on the record as kind of a gift to her.
But I end up doing better work under the stairwell. But because you kind of live in that place, that’s where a lot of the rougher stuff kind of comes out. I think about death and religion and the big picture and the world and all this kind of stuff, and it all comes out under the stairs.
Your record seems like it’s paced as a beginning-to-end album, meant to be heard in sequence. You have these spoken interstitial things, like “Between the Switches” . . .
It’s not meant to tell a story so much, but it is meant to be a definite arc; a sort of emotional journey. It’s written from a voice where I’m being cheeky and writing train songs and things like that, but with the very serious idea of sort of saying in one CD that I’m restless, I have spiritual crises, sometimes I’m as black as they come, and sometimes I’m bright. It’s intended to lead you by the finger a little bit, and hopefully leave you somewhat shiny, but also thinking about the big picture. I guess you might say that I don’t really want you to forget about your troubles. [Laughs.]
There’s a song called “Wreck of the 97″ on your album, and it’s a Hammond original; not the country song performed by Johnny Cash and many others from which the name of the band derives. Was using that title meant as a kind of declaration of independence on your part?
I wrote that during the last Old 97s record, Drag It Up. But it was a little too gutbucket for a band like ours. It’s a nod to the traditional, in the sense that it’s implying there is a train wreck. The “97″ is me. The lyric is, “It’s the wreck of the 97 / It’s the wreck of the Ellen Lee,” and it’s about someone that I wasn’t very nice to, and I regretted it. It’s probably one of the deepest regret-songs that I’ve ever written.
I have good luck with regret songs. You know, you get a certain subject, and say, “I’m just going to dip into that bucket again and see what comes out.” It’s one of those. That’s definitely one of those moments where it’s okay to come in and listen, but I understand if you feel like you’re eavesdropping.
You told the Dallas Observer about six months ago that you were working on a gospel album, too. You said you wanted to make “the first truly listenable gospel album in alt-country.” How’s that going?
Well, it’s going. Basically, when I recorded [I Don't Know Where I'm Going . . .], I was trying to record two records at the same time. I was trying to record an all-gospel one, and — you know from the record that there’s a real gospel element all over it. I was doing this other purely gospel thing. I’m about a third of the way finished with it, I would say.
I’ve been doing music on Wednesday nights at the church I go to in Burbank, California. I’ve been doing that for several years. I would go up there early — I’ve got keys to the building and everything — and I set up the P.A. and get the big reverb going and all that kind of stuff, and just play for hours, all by myself. I’m pretty sure that church is haunted! There’s just that kind of vibe in the place. But it was really creative: I worked on Old 97′s suff. I worked on gospel stuff. I worked on my stuff.
During that time, because I was providing music for [the church], they wanted me to do all this old-time stuff that I love so much. It got me to dig through my record collection, and I’ve got a big one. I was discovering all these gospel, just, gems. But they’re are all kind of bloody; real hard stuff, not-for-everybody kind of gospel. More like snake handling songs, you know? [Laughs.]
But it was a time of real discovery. I wanted to experiment with everything. I wanted to make things moodier, creepier, more solitary, more lonely, more close to the bone. So I wanted to do a record of all these discoveries I was making. Most of this stuff is in the public domain, traditional. I hope to finish it up by Christmas.
Even given the darkness of some of the songs you’ve sung for the Old 97′s, like “Valentine” or “Up the Devil’s Pay,” I always thought you had a persona within that band as being as being the friendly, easy-going, good natured best friend to Rhett’s melodramatic victim of perennial heartbreak. So the darkness of your record comes as a surprise. Do you think people have a inaccurate perception of you based on your work with the Old 97s?
No, think their perception is accurate. But everybody carries around things. When I was growing up, you know, things were kind of rocky for me in some ways. I grew up out in the country, in a very small town, and I’ve never really gotten over leaving there — even though I wanted to [leave], I’ve never gotten over it. So, you’re happy, but you sort of carry around a little bit of homesickness. I carry around homesickness a good bit nowadays, because I moved out from Texas to California. And I’m happy. I love my life, but there are things that you take with you. I have trouble letting go of some things. Some of the dark stuff I’ll hold on to, though I’ve got a happy life. It’s like that line in — I hope this isn’t a cheesy reference — “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”: “They’re always alone, even when they’re with someone they love.” I know what that is.
I’m happy, mostly. But when I’m not, it rains. [Laughs.]
Other than old snake-handling music, what are you listening to these days?
I’m in a period now where I nearly can’t listen to music with words in it. With one exception: The Innocence Mission. They formed in the 80s. They had a couple of his back then. In the mid-90s, they had a hit called Glow. They lost their drummer, and they decided instead of getting a new drummer to go on acoustically. They’re from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Some of the most astounding songwriting I’ve heard. At the point when they went acoustic, they just started writing some of the most astounding material they’ve ever made. They’re still around after all these years. It’s a husband and wife, and a third person. That’s been a wonderful discovery for me as a songwriter. Somehow I’ve missed them all these years. They were on Lilith Fair, and of course they’ve toured the heck out of the country. That’s about the only thing I can listen with words right now.
I’m off into, like, choral music; Gregorian chants, Gregorian-era church music, basically. I guess technically that has words, but it’s all Latin. I can’t understand a word of it. It just sounds like angels singing. I just love it.
But I’m going through a heavy ambient phase. Stars of the Lid are my big favorites right now. They’re like a darker Brian Eno kind of ambient thing. I’m going crazy with Stars of the Lid, I love it. That’s what I’m listening to.
You live in Burbank with your wife and son. Where do you go to get some solitude and work on songs?
You know what? I remodeled my garage. I put a dog door on it. I’ve got two brown hound dogs, and they come and hang out with me, and that’s kind of Daddy’s getaway. That’s my getaway.
The rest of it’s all family stuff. My little boy’s name is Tex — short for Texas! So he and I get away a lot.
The Old 97′s are here in Baltimore tonight to play a benefit for Barrack Obama’s campaign in Ohio. How did that come about?
Our guitar player Ken’s best friend from high school — our friend Jamie — was actually the man who introduced me to my wife. So he’s very important in our lives. He’s a great guy; he’s even toured with us as a guitar tech. He’s gotten involved with Ohio’s governor’s office. In taking our best guess in the election, we have come around to Obama. [Jamie is] very passionate about him, and asked if we wanted to do it.
We believe in Obama’s potential — because aren’t they all potential until they get elected? But we have a great gut feeling about Obama, and it’s an important time right now. It’s actually alienated some fans of ours that we’re doing anything political. But we’re all fathers. And some things will radiate out through generations, and go beyond us. That’s why we’re doing it: We love our kids. We love this world. And we think we’re taking a pretty good guess by trying to help [Obama's candidacy] along.
Murry Hammond performs at IOTA in Arlington on Monday ($12, 8:30 p.m.). I Don’t Know Where I’m Going, but I’m on My Way is out now.