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.

The other night I was driving through Canton, Ohio.  The sun was nearly down.  Headlights appeared and swerved.  The McKinley Monument moved in and out of trees.

I listened to Doug Burr’s The Shawl as I drove.  I grew still.  I felt strangely connected to the many lives travelling beside me, ahead of me, behind me, into the dying night.  Existential questions concerning life and light, pain and turmoil, washed over me, and as cars and lives raced around me, I felt no sense of aloneness.

The nine songs of The Shawl are fierce Biblical psalms that Burr put to instrumentation.  They are mostly obscure, overlooked among David’s more familiar pleas for deliverance.  The words are at times reverential, at times bleak, as the psalmist, as Burr, achingly calls out to God and awaits His answer.  

Return O’ Lord, rescue my soul;

Save me because of Thy loving kindness.

So arose his lamenting voice as I sped forward, flashing red lights lighting up the sky ahead of me.  In the glow of those lights, in the unknown misery that lay beneath them, the sadness of the psalms, the melancholy, became like fire again, as if the words had been frozen for some time, or lay dormant in a long hibernation.

Burr told me that the project began in his little girl’s bedroom.  At night, when he had run out of songs to sing her to sleep, he would build new songs out of the psalms.  After a few years, when he had some downtime between projects, he began to take the idea more seriously.

In June of 2008, he and a group of musicians met at Texas Hall in Tehuacana, a partly dilapidated structure that had been built in the late 1800s to house Trinity University.  It had seen many years of use, slowly suffering the same fate as every other human thing: that of deterioration.  The photograph on the album’s cover tells much of its story: peeling paint, boarded windows, broken floorboards.  But there is light, a powerful white light bursting through the windows.  And there is life.  It’s in the bitter, terrifying, triumphant words of the psalms, and in the heartbreaking delivery of Doug Burr, as he embodies the cries of the broken.

Burr is no stranger to issues of brokenness, or of deterioration.  He has grappled with the mysteries of darkness for many years.  “I’ve always been fairly obsessed with the idea of death and the afterlife…I don’t care much about things that don’t deal with more than one layer of this existence”.  In college, when those around him were concerned with having fun and living life, Burr was silently wrestling with mortality and what he calls, “the triviality of life”.  He had always been sensitive to such things.  At that very transitional point in his life, he became somewhat paranoid, scavenging the bleak, ignored corners of the psyche, questioning the morality of existence, asking, as the sacred harpist, “Am I born to die?”

Through prayer, through scripture, through the love and support of his wife, whom he met towards the end of his college days, he slowly came to terms with the darkness, finding some peace in the restorative promises of God.

Burr has drawn upon this darker, more introspective side throughout his career as a singer/songwriter.  He has continuously chronicled the murkier regions of the human experience, as well as the gray areas that lie where the spirit and flesh collide.  Though explicitly Biblical, the Shawl is no leap heavenward for Burr.   Many of the psalms were written in hours of darkness, at a very human level.  The psalmist could very easily stand next to many of Burr’s own embattled characters.  But interspersed among their sad utterances, among his tales of sin and consequences, are glimpses of hope, emerging as light through a window.

Burr and his band recorded the songs over a 27-hour period, with little sleep and little rest.  Most of the album was recorded live, with some additional instrument tracks added toward the 27th hour, and with the exception of the final track, “In the Lord I Take Refuge”, which Burr recorded without accompaniment.  The sound of birds chirping in the background, moving through rafters, he sings,

“…For behold, the wicked bend the bow,

They make ready the arrow

upon the string,

To shoot in darkness at the

upright in heart.

If the foundations are destroyed,

What can the righteous do?” 

It is a sentiment as disheartening as the dying walls of Texas Hall.  But Doug doesn’t languish on that thought for long.  Though his voice is still weary, he sings in triumph,

The upright will see His face.

Information was gathered through an interview I conducted with Doug Burr.