Q&A: Murry Hammond of Old 97's

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Murry Hammond has been part of the Dallas music scene for far more than 20 years. Stints in the Sleepy Heroes and the unheralded Peyote Cowboys preceded his more high-profile days as bassist for the Old 97's. Hammond's first solo CD comes out February 22, and Hammond is playing the Pine Knot Music Co-op in Nacogdoches that evening as part of the venue's Seventh Anniversary Celebration. Hammond took some time to discuss his solo effort and what the future will bring to one of Dallas' most renowned groups.

Rhett Miller has made two solo efforts and probably is working on another. What took you so long to release one?

Until a few years ago, I was unsure just what I wanted to say, to be honest. I knew what I thought about and felt all the time - death and religion, history and war, good versus evil, homesickness, my restless spirit, etc. But it wasn't until I began doing music at our church that I started to sense what could be done. I had keys to the building, so every Wednesday I'd go up there and set up the PA and just play for hours. It was a time of real discovery, especially with all these old gospel and hard-times songs, and I'd also work on my own song pieces. There's something about working in a church. My pieces and the gospel stuff began to smear all over each other, and I wrote and wrote and wrote and basically found my voice, as they say.

My solo record I Don't Know Where I'm Going But I'm On My Way is mastered as of this week. My intention during recording was to record two records at once. So I'm also about a third the way through an all gospel recording. It's full of all the spooky and moody experimentation that I've long messed around with when I've been by myself at church. My goal is to make the first truly listenable all-gospel record in alt-country.

Old 97's guitarist Ken Bethea was quoted recently as saying the new 97's disc is going to be the best one since Too Far to Care. Why do you think that so many folks hold that release in such high esteem? And by returning to a more traditional alt-country sound, are you saying that the pop experimentation of Satellite Rides and Fight Songs was an error in judgment?

People will always like Too Far to Care because it was a singular moment when our punchiest sonics combined with a rare pile of songs. That's pretty much it. All our planets lined up on that one. Ken references that record because - and this is at the risk of jinxing it - we feel like the planets have again lined up. We have a rare pile of songs, and the performances and sound are very, very satisfying. I'm afraid to say too much. And there is no return to our alt-country past, rather, this record has just the sort of experimentation and stylistic stretching of Fight Songs and Satellite Rides, and really may be our biggest stretch yet. But, of course, it still sounds exactly like us.

What was it like when you were on Elektra? At that time, you guys appeared on Leno, Letterman, etc. What happened, and is it better to be on a smaller label?

I have fond memories of my time on Elektra. There were a lot of young people working there that were honest to God fans and cheerleaders, but, honestly, I don't know how we stayed on Elektra as long as we did. We just didn't make them any money. They originally signed us thinking that, out of the new alt-country movement of the early/mid-1990s, that people like us or Whiskeytown or someone were going to generate the odd and occasional hit single, and that radio and audiences were going to be friendly to it.

I think they thought that they were going to have a sort of modern-day Eagles or The Band or some such. Remember that no matter how hard the rock got in the 1970s, there was always the country-ish Eagles with these giant hits. In the end Elektra were wrong about us, realized it, dropped us and re-signed Rhett. What had failed with the 97's, they wanted to try out on Rhett.

What affect has being married and having a son had on your solo career and your participation in the Old 97's. Do you still play concerts with your wife? What's going on with your wife's singing career and voice-over work?

Fortunately, I'm in a band with three other fathers, so they are just as concerned as I am with balancing the band with family life. Only change from the old days of being single and crazy is we limit the tour lengths now, and factor in things like Ken's soccer and flag football coaching back in Dallas. I still play with my wife, but only for special occasions, like the Christmas Eve church service. She's basically retired from live performing, but still records here and there. Grey is still pretty busy with the cartoon voices. Still doing Fosters, Fairly Odd Parents, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Scooby Doo, etc.

How can the 97's be a real band with you in California and Rhett in New York? Do you guys ever write songs together? Can you still be considered a Dallas band?

Well, we got to be from somewhere! And we're either a band or an artistic collective, and I think a collective is a little fancy for how we work. Real band? Make up your own mind. We haven't all lived in the same state since our band was 3 years old, and we're going on 15 now. We have now stretched that rubber band to Los Angeles and upper-state New York, but the rubber band hasn't snapped. We still feel spiritually like a Dallas band. All our friends and family are there, the half that doesn't live there anymore still wrestles with varying levels of homesickness, and if we have a few days to do a quick tour, 95 percent of the time we line up Dallas, Austin and Houston.

Living apart has never had much of an effect on our playing. I don't think we've had a real rehearsal since 1995; we just don't need to. We see each other all the time, we know each other too well and we pick up new stuff faster than you can imagine. Rhett and I still co-write a song or two per record - this time it's one called "My Two Feet."

If Rhett's solo career had really taken off, do you think the Old 97's would still be together?

I think it is human nature to want to keep going down a highly successful solo path, so who knows? I remember early in that whole process - this was very late 2001 - Rhett did say that he couldn't predict how he was going to feel about the band in a year's time. I think he was trying to prepare himself for anything, and prepare us as well. However, he did always say that he wanted the band to remain together and have some role in his musical life, and that our friendship and history together was important to him. I take him at his word, then and now.

How have the Old 97's managed to stay together so long?

On the inter-personal end, we share similar traditional values toward life and apply that, in our way, to what we want out of the band. We are also very good at compromise. We don't really argue - and if we do, it's pretty civil, about the way brothers will argue, but at the end of the day our love for the band wins out and we'll compromise for the good of the whole ship. Another big factor is how we handle finances. We know that financial stress will erode an otherwise good marriage. Without going into the details, our particular method is, everyone gets a hefty chunk of songwriting monies and everything else is carved up equally. This makes everyone happy and feel valued.

But most of all, we still feel connected to the music, and we still feel we have something to say, and to prove to ourselves. Once that's gone, our days are numbered. Happily, we're very healthy, and look forward to a crazy 2008 and '9. -- Darryl Smyers

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