Hammond’s guitar playing, whistling, and yodeling together become the sound of the wind, representing extreme loneliness and the echo of the great hereafter.
In the Old 97s, bassist/sometimes-singer Murry Hammond has continually played the supporting role of maintaining the group’s connection to Country & Western while they moved in a more solidly pop-rock direction. His songs, a couple per album, have overt or sublimated links to the Old West, to railroads and the lonesome wind. On his first solo LP, Hammond and producer Mark Neill dive head-first into that mythic world through song but also atmosphere. It sounds remarkably spare, like we’re out in the desert with only the tumbling tumbleweeds. Many of the songs start quiet and almost a cappella. Hammond’s singing is especially sensitive and well-recorded; he sounds better than ever as a singer. Each instrument is prominent enough to be its own character, especially harmonium. Hammond’s guitar playing, whistling, and yodeling together become the sound of the wind, representing extreme loneliness and the echo of the great hereafter.
The album is wrapped in the imagery of the railroads, and it’s structured like a railroad journey. It has twists and turns -- pop songs here, religious songs there -- but then always returns to the same essential structure. And it just keeps rolling along, longer than you expect, picking up more facets, like passengers, along the way. At first it seems an exercise in style, and an exceptional one at that. The album is its own distinct space that you enter. But the album’s world of trains and their lonely passengers is entwined with the way it stands as a personal, spiritual statement.
The album opens with the musical question “What are they doing in Heaven today?”, one written by Rev. Charles A. Tindley, but given additional words, plus arranging, by Hammond. The album starts, then, with him pondering a place “Where tears and sorrow are all done away / Where peace abounds like a river’s flow”. From there, the album, for all its railroad trappings, dwells both on the tears and sorrow of life and on the movement from life to death, towards the eternal. The songs are sometimes Hammond’s and sometimes old spirituals or country songs (think: the Carter Family) that he has neatly folded into his project. Towards the beginning, Hammond’s own songs provide both pop melodies (on “Wreck of the 97” and the irresistible “Next Time Take the Train”, especially) and a focus on the loneliness of life. “Lost at Sea” describes a lovelorn rambler’s life in a way that suggests we’re all ramblers: “The restless ones like me / All comb the ground to find the lost at sea”.
Six songs in, a tune is introduced that will keep coming back. It’s a public domain song, split into three songs or written in three variations, I’m not sure which. But the first time we hear it, it’s “Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad”, making clear what we already recognize to be the album’s theme. Each of the three times the song appears, the final verse is essentially a prayer. Each time the song is a guidepost along the route, first of intent, then of struggle (“You Will Often Meet Obstruction”), and then of finality. As track 14 of 17, the third version, “As You Roll Across the Trestle”, embodies the notion of a railroad trip to the hereafter, by singing of the end-stop. This time, the final verse’s reference to “reach(ing) that blissful shore” represents the moment of fulfillment, of getting to that peaceful place that Hammond was dreaming of at the album’s start. That is echoed in the song after it, Bob Nolan’s “Rainbow’s End”, which depicts a final destination that brings a treasure. But, he sings, “the treasure I’ll find will bring me real peace of mind”. The treasure is the knowledge of a higher power, the security that life’s lonely railroad journey was not that lonely after all.
If I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m on My Way seems in some ways an escapist work, an exercise in building a complete universe shaded with all of the right colors and sounds, it is the spiritual backbone to it all that reinforces how personal a project this is. The album’s final track is where it is definitively marked as such. With no references to the railroad, the song, titled “I Believe, I Believe”, is a personal testimony, a prayer. It’s also one that ends, as the album began, with idealism: “I believe, I believe the children of sight / Will look out on a beautiful morn”. The song is a statement that pins that belief in not just personal change, but global change: in the dream of true calm, of eternal peace. As a spiritual statement and as a railroad concept album, the disc thus goes deeper than you may expect. And as Hammond’s first solo musical statement, it does the same and then some. As the supporting player steps into the spot-light, he reveals his talent and perspective to be more substantial than anyone, even fans of his previous work, would have expected.