Destination Written Upon My Feet

Written by Kimberly Roth : May 7, 2008

murry hammondWhen May bleeds into June, rousing summer in its wake, a subtle yet significant loss will be felt in the music world.  The May-June issue (#75) of No Depression magazine, will be the final print issue published.  There are whispers of things to come, such as expanded web content and a semi-annual book version compiling feature-length articles, but the loss of the magazine is a blow to Americana fans, nonetheless.  Many of my favorite artists were selected from obscure ads in the margins of No Depression’s pages, or circled from lists of influences in ten-page reviews of artists I had already come to know and love.  The magazine was to alt-country fans what Al Mohler’s blog is to reformed theologians.

I have to be honest for a moment, and admit to our readers that I am partially responsible for the demise of a magazine you may care absolutely nothing about.  You see, I allowed my subscription to lapse several years ago, picking up only the occasional issue here and there, and cheating on it often with younger, hipper issues of Paste promising free CDs.  Luckily for our readers, this article isn’t really about the magazine at all. 

Featured prominently in this farewell issue is one of my desert-island, all-time, top five bands, the Old 97’s.  Next week the band will release its latest offering, Blame it on Gravity, and the article was a testimony to the band’s perseverance and the band mates’ commitment to one another.  The primary songwriters and leads of the band, Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond, have a friendship that dates back some-odd twenty years to their days in Dallas, Texas.  These days the two make their homes on opposite coasts, but the music still finds a way to creep out of their souls and meld together into something consonant.

Murry Hammond’s story has long intrigued me.  The man who co-lead an unforgettable experience at Deep Ellum’s Gypsy Tea Room four years ago leads a roots-style weekly worship in California.  In a phrase, he’s my kind of guy.  His faith often seems to crop up in interviews and reviews, and Hammond does not shy away from discussing it.  John Marks, the author of this Old 97’s tribute and retrospective, notes: 

Listening to [Hammond’s solo] record in contrast to Miller’s The Believer, it’s hard to imagine that Hammond, who opens his solo debut with “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today”, has remained lifelong friends and musical partners with Miller, who penned that gorgeous ode to one-night stands, “Fireflies”.  To put the difference in the starkest possible terms, it’s hard to hear much Jesus on Miller’s last record, or much sex on Hammond’s new one.

Hammond, naturally, comes to the defense both of the presence of God and of the presence of sex in his music.  Neither the presence of the creator of the universe or of procreation in the band’s lyrics was surprising to me.  As an avid fan and admitted music junkie, my mind immediately raced back to a humble interview with Murry Hammond published in 2004 on the seminal Christian-media webzine, the Phantom Tollbooth.  In that interview, Hammond was asked how he reconciled the themes of the Old 97’s music with his Christian faith.  As a writer and as a follower of Christ, his explanation has stuck with me over the years. 

While I am most definitely still a work-in-progress, I think I’m kinder to people because of my pursuit of God, I know my marriage is better for it, and I think I’m 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 God’s 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.
But what happens most in my writing, is I’ll put a microscope on a specific part of the redemption story, such as with the character in “Up the Devils Pay,” 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 “I Saw the Light,” 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.
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, it’s much like a calling to ministry: Why aren’t 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, country-rock bands.

What say you?

Can we talk about grace, without understanding the need for it?

Can we talk about sight without at least a cursory knowledge of blindness?

Will people who are searching for what Christ has to offer pay us any mind if they don’t feel, at least a bit, like we know where they are coming from? 

In that same Phantom Tollbooth interview, Murry also touched on the vitality of his friendship with the men in his band. 

…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 we’ll 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. We’re just tending seeds around here.

Kimberly Roth is a co-editor for the Jesus Manifesto. She over-thinks and cares way too much, so she rambles on at

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