Some time ago, my friend Matt and I walked a stretch of train tracks to an old railroad bridge.  It was around 10:30 at night.  We planned on hopping a train and riding it the 15 miles or so back to his house.  I carried a guitar while he toted a pouch full of supplies for recording and documenting our experience.

We came to the bridge, black beams and rusted iron rising perhaps 15 or 20 feet above the ground.  We slipped on gravel and clutched at beams as we moved downward, toward our hiding place under the bridge.   There was graffiti on the iron, and bits of litter and bottles among the overgrowth.   We waited for perhaps an hour.  I walked in circles, fingerpicking and singing old train songs.  Soon after, we heard it: a lonesome whistle, somewhere in the near distance.   Matt strapped the guitar to his back.  We stood on the graveled slope and watched.  There were more whistles, closer now.  After maybe 20 minutes, we saw it, speeding towards us.   We raced back to our hiding place.  We crouched low.  The sound grew louder and louder.  The bridge began to vibrate.  And then…a mighty roar as the great machine raced by, mere feet above us.

When the engine had passed, we ran up the slope and down the line of trains.  They sped past us, one after another.  I had never been so close to a speeding train before.  I stood frail against an uncompromising force.  The noise it made was like heavy wind and thunder.  You had to yell to speak over it.  For a moment, probably much longer, I was terrified.

The last car sped past and we began running after it, at full sprint, but it was too fast.  We stood on the tracks, catching our breath, as the train disappeared into the night, a fading red light.

For some time after, I thought about the great and terrifying locomotive and its place in the history of gospel music.  I had never taken the words as sincerely as I did on that particular night, where the great power rushed before my eyes like the angels of Revelation.  Many of those old songs recall the wrath and power of God breaking into our lives, whether we like it or not, drawing us into His reign, or leaving us along the tracks.

Murry Hammond, in his record, I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m On My Way, continues those gospel traditions, often drawing upon the history of sacred music, chronicling various riders on their paths to heaven or elsewhere.  It’s not exactly a gospel record.  Not everyone chooses heaven in the end.  But for some of these lost travelers, a light does appear around the bend.  A faith is rewarded.

The album opens quietly, with the soft, pulsating strums of Hammond’s guitar, emerging as if out of darkness.  His voice, awash in reverb, soon follows.

What are they doing in heaven today?

he asks, not as Washington Phillips once did, with hints of joy, but as if the possibility of heaven is the only hope for a life marred with tribulation.

I’m thinking of friends that I used to know,

No longer living in this world below.

I’ve heard about heaven but I want to know

Oh what are they doing right now?

Hammond follows a road first paved by the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and the mountain musicians before them.  He interprets old songs and sings new ones that sound old.  When writing, he adopts ancient idioms.  His words, his patterns of language, like those of the old songs, are peculiar and often ambiguous.   The sounds of the record, the echo of his voice, the drone of his harmonium, are as ghostly and as mysterious as the mountains that first gave birth to the tradition.

Hammond, like the Carters, like Williams and Cash, is a man who stands in two worlds: the sacred and the secular.  He earns a living playing bass for the rock/alt-country group, Old 97’s, who specialize in songs about love, relationships, and yes, sex; and he is a committed Christian, attending church in Burbank, California when he can, singing of salvation often, and struggling, as we all do, to look Godward.

Of his faith, he says,  “I was one of the ones that you might say was ‘cornered’, where I felt like God was trying to get my attention.  He got it, and it came during a time of a particular valley I was in.  Even now that’s often how I get steered back into ‘the fold’ as it were, when I wander off and am in need of a re-pointing of my compass”.

Hammond, a native Texan, was born into the Southern Christian tradition.  His mother and father were both devout and deeply spiritual.   Prone to wanderlust at a young age, he fought against their beliefs with much energy, but with little success.  His journey of faith hasn’t been a straightforward path.  It has been, like the trains he so frequently sings about, full of sharp curves and dead ends.  It has moved through deep valleys and traversed cliff walls.  It has seen pitch-black nights with only dim lantern light to see by.  But through every misstep and back step, through every dark night, he has emerged again, wiser and stronger and further enveloped in the great mystery.

As for living and working in the secular world, he says, “There certainly is a lot of opportunity for vice in rock and roll and I tend to give in to some of it, and other times shake myself out of it and look deeper, and higher.  The equation is an age-old one: the more worldly I live, the more unhappy and complicated my world gets.  Conversely, the higher I shoot, and the more I cling to a universal love, the happier I am and the better I treat people”.

Though not always autobiographical, there are pieces of Hammond in each of his characters.  They are all on various tracks, searching hard for something elusive or hidden, whether it be God or love or home or the unknown.  He has longed for each of these at some point in his life, and somehow found a few of them.

In the song, “Next Time, Take the Train”, Hammond sings,

Throw it wide and see no end,

Let no one fence or cage you in,

And realize where you have been, and why.

The traveller speaks of finding that place between where you’ve come from and where you’re going.  It is in this space that Hammond himself has found clarity.  He embraces the places and people that brought him here.  He embraces the faith that revived him, again and again.  But he is still intrigued and ever excited about the concept of the unknown before him.

*          *          *

Matt and I walked the tracks until 1:30 in the morning, waiting for another train to pass, but nothing ever came.  We talked about the past and the future for hours; the places we came from and the places ahead.  Driving home, I listened to I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m on my Way.  The train had long rode on.  The world had grown quiet.  I parked the car and turned to the album’s final track, a song about heaven:

I’m gonna sail on across the wide river

Where my Lord has gone on before.

Where the long look behind turns to family there gathered,

To meet, and to part, no more.

I too grew anxious for that unknown.

 

 

Information was gathered through an interview I conducted with Murry Hammond.

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I remember crying when Johnny Cash died.  Not at first.  I spent the morning in a sort of impassive state, travelling from school building to school building as if the world were an unfamiliar place.   I was at college, living alone in a dorm at Kent State.  I had come downstairs to the lobby and if I remember right, Cash was playing through the speakers, on the radio.  When I heard it, I knew that something was wrong.  I knew that Johnny Cash wouldn’t be on the radio on any normal day.  Sure enough, when the song ended, the deejay announced that the man in black had died.

It was a Friday.  Soon after, I ate and went to class.  I floated across the sidewalks.  I was quiet and blank.  After class had let out, I gathered my stuff, got in my car and headed home for the weekend.  I put the Johnny Cash mix I had compiled of my favorite songs into the CD player.  A few songs in, before I had reached the interstate, perhaps at “Big River”, I started bawling.

Though there were many sides to Cash, there are two that stand out distinctly for me.  The first is of the legend, the larger than life icon who sang of murder and sin with complete conviction.  He was a man, no, a mythological creature, who burned down forests in stoned rampages.  This Cash is universally known and worshipped as a rock star.  The monument of this Cash will tower over the world until there is no world.

The second side is smaller, less distinct, but probably more accurate.  This Cash was warm, thoughtful, and deeply spiritual.  He collected books on theology.  He made frequent trips to the Holy Land, studying the ancestors of his faith.  Those closest to him testify of this Cash and it was this Cash, who, near the end of his life, laid aside his black coat, his legend, and recorded what I believe to be one of his greatest contributions to American music, My Mother’s Hymn Book.

Cash had recorded a number of gospel records over his long career, but the 15 songs of My Mother’s Hymn Book (a collections of gospel standards like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Softly and Tenderly”) can be traced back to his earliest memories.  They are songs that gave strength to the Cash family as they toiled in the cotton fields of Arkansas.  They are what shaped the young J.R. into the booming singer that he would become.   And they are songs that Cash drew upon when he found himself in the lowest depths of his addictions.

Come home, come home

You who are weary, come home…

I can imagine him, in his darkest hours, when voice and body were wrecked, recalling those words.

…Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,

Calling, O sinner, come home.

     Cash’s drug problems have been reiterated often.  After making a name for himself at Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio, Cash moved to Columbia Records and very quickly became a megastar.  To endure the long hours of touring and recording, he began taking amphetamines.  The pills wrecked havoc on his mind and body.  He grew agitated and restless.  His frame became gaunt, his eyes sunken.

The deeper he sank into his addiction, the more unstable his behavior became.  In 1965, he famously busted the stage lights of the Grand Ole Opry with his microphone stand.  Upon walking offstage, he met the Opry’s manager, who politely asked him never to return.

Cash’s life continued its long spiral downward until, in 1967, he decided to crawl into the bowels of NIckajack Cave, in Tennessee, and await death.   For hours he moved deep into the labyrinth of tunnels, until the batteries of his flashlight died and the darkness overtook him.  He recalled in his book, “Cash: A Biography”, that as he was laying there,

I felt something very powerful start to happen to me, a sensation of utter peace, clarity, and sobriety.  I didn’t believe it at first.  I couldn’t’ understand it.  How, after being awake for so long and driving my body so hard and talking so many pills-dozens of them, scores, even hundreds- could I possibly feel all right?  The feeling persisted, though, and then my mind started focusing on God…I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny.  I was not in charge of my own death.  I was going to die at God’s time, not mine.  I hadn’t prayed over my decision to seek death in the cave, but that hadn’t stopped God from intervening.

In complete darkness, perhaps hundreds of yards, perhaps a mile, deep inside a maze of caverns, he somehow, miraculously, crawled back out.

He would continue to struggle with his addictions for years afterward, but through war and through battle, his faith would once again be restored, helped along by little miracles.

One such miracle happened in New York, probably sometime in the 1970s, when he and June Carter walked past First Baptist Church.  They decided to enter when somewhere in the congregation, a young voice shouted, “JOHNNY CASH! Johnny Cash has come to church with me! I told you!  I told you he was coming!”

The young boy, mentally disabled, had told everyone earlier that Johnny Cash would be coming with him to church that day.

Cash wasn’t shy when it came to his faith.  He wrote a book about Paul, whose conversion he identified with.  He made a movie about Jesus, whose life he tried, and often failed, to emulate.  “Walk the Line” sort of downplayed this side of his life, in favor of the legend.  Nickajack Cave isn’t even mentioned (which I always found odd, being that it’s such a cinematic event).  But there’s no doubt, from what he’s written in both his autobiographies, that God, the God of his mother, the God of his youth, was the ultimate redeemer of his brokenness.  And it was to this God, and of this God that he sang in My Mother’s Hymn Book.  Only this time, he had been around long enough to know the seriousness of the words.

I’m sort of ambivalent about many of the later records Cash recorded for American Recordings.  A lot of the songs are crowded with instruments and guest stars, where few are needed; and they seem to perpetuate the myth of Cash.  I suppose that’s why I’m drawn to My Mother’s Hymn Book, where the myth is forsaken.  The producer, Rick Rubin, and the engineer, David Ferguson, are doing what musicologists like Alan Lomax and John Cohen and Mike Seeger did in the middle of the century.  They are capturing an important voice before it’s gone; documenting a musical tradition before it is lost to history.  The only things we hear on the record are the simple strums of Cash’s guitar, and a voice that still booms like thunder; that says, with all certainty,

Though all hell assail me, I shall not be moved.

     Of the 40 plus albums that Cash recorded over his life, he called this one his favorite.  He sings from a worn book of hymns that his mother passed on to him.  He sings of the faraway shore and of life eternal.  He sings not as the legend or as the undying outlaw, but as a man humbled and frail before his God, the weight of death and glory on his shoulders.

I think it was this Cash that I cried for so many years ago.  It was this human Cash that I understood.

 

Information gathered from Cash’s two autobiographies, “Man In Black” and “Cash: the Autobiography”, as well as the liner notes to My Mother’s Hymn Book.