Listening In: Michael Martin Murphey

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you will be listening in on my conversation with singer and songwriter Michael Martin Murphey.

MUSIC: [“Wildfire”]

You’re listening to a bit of a “Wildfire,” Michael Martin Murphey’s best known song, which was a huge radio hit in 1975 and it’s been a staple of adult contemporary music ever since. But Murphey has had a long and varied career that extends well beyond that iconic song. One of his early successes was “What Am I Doing Hangin Round,” which was a hit for the Monkees more than 50 years ago in 1967.

MUSIC: [“Hangin Round”]

After a string of pop hits in the 70s and more than a dozen songs that made the country charts in the 1980s, Murphey committed what his record label thought was commercial suicide by releasing an album of cowboy songs in 1990. But that album went on to sell a million copies and helped launch the Americana roots music movement in this country.

Today, Murphey is one of the elder statesmen of the Americana movement and a recent exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville celebrated his music and his contributions to the Austin music scene in the early 1970s. The exhibit, called Armadillos and Outlaws, also coincides with the release of a new album by Murphey called Austinology: Alleys of Austin. It features guest performances by Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, The Last Bandoleros, and Amy Grant. Michael Murphey was one of my first guests on Listening In back in 2014 and at that time we talked extensively about his Christian faith and how it informs his music. We continue that discussion today, but we also get a peek into the world of Austin in the 1970s long before such festivals as South By Southwest and shows such as Austin City Limits made Austin what some say is the live music capital of the world.

Murph, one of the things that I think was special about the Austin music scene and about the music that you’ve done over the course of your career is it is not one thing. It’s country, it’s full, it’s bluegrass, there’s a jazz element, there’s a gospel element to it and it’s kind of all an amalgam of a strange brew that sort of comes together. It becomes something different from all of the above.

MICHAEL MARTIN MURPHEY, GUEST: It’s called American music. It’s called the American experience.

SMITH: Well say more about that.

MURPHEY: Well, I started off as a songwriter and when I first started learning to play the guitar, I listened to everything. If I heard a good song by Elvis I’d play it. But I had tastes in my soul that rejected the songs of some artists because I didn’t like what the message was. I was always very sensitive about the message. So if I heard a rock song that had a great message that communicated something in my soul, I was just as into that as I was a folk song you can sing by the campfire. And so I decided pretty early on I wanted to be a songwriter, not necessarily a recording artist. And I went out to LA and I was writing songs in a publishing company called Sparrow Music, which is owned by Randy Sparks. And then it was after that Screen Gems, which was — that was Don Kirshner and the people that were writing songs down the hall from me were Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Gerry Goffin, Jack Killer. These were guys that were career songwriters. They were never going to be recording artists. There were a few exceptions in that have building. Neil Diamond also was one of the songwriters to Screen Gems. He had started off with Kirshner…

SMITH: Kind of the LA version of the Brill Building in New York.

MURPHEY: Well, it was the Brill Building. Those guys all moved to California. It was the same people. 

SMITH: Yeah. Wow.

MURPHEY: And it was, if you will, kind of a factory. It was, you know, saying it was a factory makes it sound like a sweatshop, but we really had fun. Instead of going into a cubicle and trying to work out somebody accounting, our job was to sit and write songs for people. That was not only a great challenge, it was great to be around all those other writers. It was almost kind of like an old newsroom. The Chicago Tribune, you know, where everybody’s out there in the same room pounding away on typewriters and people are walking over to each other’s desk and saying, “What do you think of this?” and “What do you think of that?”

We had these little cubicles where you can turn on a tape recorder in there and record what you were doing. So they were soundproof. That was the only part I didn’t like about it because I like to have windows. I like to be able to look outside when I’m playing. But that gave a very eclectic kind of approach. I was already very much that way in my soul. But being around those guys, they’d say, “Hey, Engelbert Humperdinck’s looking for a song.” “Okay, what’s he looking for?” “He’s looking for a medium tempo love ballad.” “Okay. Next week on Monday we want you guys to present your medium tempo love ballad.” And we would. We’d go and make a demo and then they’d go to Engelbert Humperdinck’s producer and say, “Here’s what we got.”

Kirshner picked songwriters that nine times out of 10 would be the ones that got picked from all the other publishing companies because he really knew how to work with songwriters.

SMITH: Well, there may be a lot of folks listening to us who know who Don Kirshner was. But some that don’t. Don Kirshner was this kind of great, well-known rock impresario.

MURPHEY: He was a rock and pop music impresario.

SMITH: Yeah. And he had television programs. And, well, was he the one that put The Monkees together? Did he do that?

MURPHEY: He was the one that put The Monkees together. By the way, footnote, some of the guys in Buffalo Springfield auditioned for that band and we might have actually faced the spectrum having Steve Stills in The Monkees. [laughter]

SMITH: Well, I’m glad he ended up in Buffalo Springfield and not The Monkees because there are some folks that say —

MURPHEY: And then Crosby, Stills, and Nash, of course. 

SMITH: That’s right. Well, Mike Nesmith, who was part of this crowd that you were a part of, right?

MURPHEY: Neil Young actually auditioned for The Monkees.

SMITH: I mean, if they’d ended up in The Monkees instead of doing what they did, a lot of folks think that The Monkees killed Mike Nesmith’s career. I don’t know if you think that or not. 

MURPHEY: I don’t think Mike was really going anywhere at the time. Don’t get me wrong, he had great songs and great presence, but he was in the country rock arena, which was extremely fledgling then and very questionable. Those of us that were in that movement would go down to the Palomino Club and be in the valley and be on the talent show. And it’s like if your hair was just slightly over your ears, you know, they would boo you off the stage. I mean, it was, people cannot possibly conceive of the incredible gap and canyon that existed between the pop music people and the country people at that time. Country people represented the war in Vietnam and the pop people represented the resentment of the war in Vietnam. And it was like never the twain shall meet. But they did meet in Austin, Texas. 

SMITH: Well that’s right. They met and eventually — part of the reason… 

MURPHEY: Kris Kristofferson was a Vietnam war pilot.

SMITH: Really?


SMITH: Oh, I didn’t realize that.

MURPHEY: Yeah. A bunch of those guys that were in the Austin scene had been in the military or on the fringe of it or raised by people who were World War II veterans. I mean, old Texas war heroes. Like my uncle.

SMITH: So part of the reason I wanted to mention all of that and let you tell that story is because that time in LA was a very formative time for you, but you ended up coming back to Austin. Some of those songs, though, survived, right? I mean, you wrote a whole album for Kenny Rogers during that era and you wrote “What Am I Doing Hangin Round”, which became a hit for The Monkees as well.

MURPHEY: I wrote “That Boy From the Country,” which is my first song that really gave me my first paycheck. 

SMITH: John Denver recorded that song.

MURPHEY: We would write songs on what they called an advance. It really wasn’t a salary. Whenever you had a hit song, that advance had to be paid back out of your royalties. So, we would do it that way in that Brill Building kind of format. But the thing was I had songs that I didn’t think other people would record and I was right. It wasn’t until “Geronimo’s Cadillac” album came out then Hoyt Axton and Cher both did “Geronimo’s Cadillac.” Cher had some Native American in her, so she was kind of playing on the editor at time. So I just believe that the eclectic songwriter scene was what got me into playing all kinds of music when I first got into it. And then my first album, I had this collection of songs that were all over the map. They were country songs, they were pop songs, they were Gospel songs. I think the difference was between me and the others is that I always tried to put at least one or two Gospel songs on every album.

SMITH: Well let me, let me push on that just a little bit because you mentioned “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” which in some ways was kind of a breakthrough for you, and there were a couple of songs on there — “Lights of the City” — which was just you and a piano, I guess. It was very gospel oriented. And another song “Backsliders’ Wine,” which Jerry Jeff Walker ended up recording on Viva Terlingua, which in my view “Geronimo’s Cadillac” and Viva Terlingua are like the two essential albums of that early Austin music scene. And you recorded one of them in “Backsliders’ Wine,” which has a very strong sort of gospel message to it is on Jerry Jeff’s album. Is that a fair assessment?

MURPHEY: I’m glad you feel that way. I kind of feel like Viva Terlingua exceeds my mind by the standard of being in a central Texas album, that it was a live album recorded in Luckenbach. But mine was crafted in Studio A Columbia in Nashville, but Bob Johnston had come down to Austin and hung out with me a lot, listened to all the different music that was around there, had signed me to a label and said you can come to Nashville and make the record and we’ll try to make it in Texas. But I don’t think I’m going to find a studio down there that’s going to sound the way I want it to sound if we’re going to make a studio album. So I came up and did it, but I brought Gary Nunn with me. And Bob Livingston was the bass player. It was a combination of Nashville studio musicians and the people that were hanging around Austin that had never even been in a recording studio.

So those guys, some of those guys had never, I don’t think Gary had ever been into a big time recording studio. And boy, were they nervous when they came in. They were playing with guys like Carl Radle on the drums, you know. These were guys that played recording sessions every day. It ended up kind of interesting. The session players said the guys that you brought in here play totally different than we would have played. They played different licks than we played because we’re influenced by all the other studio players in town. That’s why their records start to sound alike, you know? You guys, on the other hand, are down there in Texas just kind of wildly making up your own music and you might be influenced by the records you listen to, but you’re not influenced by a kind of insulated scene like we are. So it actually ended up being a great decision and we continue to do that, have people from down there and up here in Nashville make the records. Willy eventually took the same approach.

MUSIC: [“Boy From The Country”]

SMITH: Murph, we’ve talked about how there have been gospel songs on a lot of your albums and gospel and the influence of gospel has been important to you. But you said to me something on a telephone call a couple of weeks ago that resonated with me. You said that even though a lot of your music is not explicitly Christian or gospel, that if you don’t understand your faith, you don’t really understand your music. Would you say more about that?

MURPHEY: Well, I was raised in the Baptist Church, but I got into all kinds of things later on. And the biggest influence on my faith in my life besides the Bible itself with C.S. Lewis. I read C.S. Lewis when I was a teenager and I read the Narnia stuff first, which actually had been kind of obscured. I mean, in my time as a kid, there wasn’t much of that around. Right when I was a freshman at North Texas State University, I first started hearing about Tolkien. And I had already read the Narnia stuff cause it was around. And I began to get interested in those guys. And I finally found, you know, The Screwtape Letters, which probably isn’t required in English courses anymore, but it was required them. And I read that and I was so impressed with it because I thought, here’s a guy that can really communicate the truth about the scriptures in a way that is engaging even to people who are the scriptures, you know? That book was a big influence on me because it deals with the seemingly benign influence of evil. The thing I remembered the most is is evil World War II and Adolf Hitler. Or is it you forgetting to go visit your mother because you’re too busy? Lewis was big on the little things and it kind of got me into the whole idea of the equality of us all as sinners, you know? And that God doesn’t look at sin in terms of magnitude. Of course we do as human beings and that’s apart of society and I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But we all have our transgressions and I think that got me back into thinking about the grace of Jesus Christ and how we’re all forgiven and how we can be proud as Protestants that we carried that on.

It made me more proud of my Protestant faith. Then I found out that one of my relatives was a deacon in the original Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island. He’s one of the guys who got kicked out of the Massachusetts colony the upon pain of death for believing in total immersion Baptism, which was an anathema to the pilgrims. And I started reading up on my family and I thought, this is a heritage. This is not just something that I believe. Don’t have to have a heritage to believe it, but there’s also a whole group of people out there that are my forebears that are in my genetics who were looking into these really deep, important issues. And I realized that Roger Williams was the reason why we probably have a plank for religious freedom in the Constitution. And I was really into social activism at that time. So I began to tie all this together. And I said, you know, Jesus just infuses everything, you know, if you really go to the core of what he taught and what he talked about, and it began to influence everything that I wrote.

SMITH: Well, some of your music, as I said, a lot of your music’s not explicitly Christian, but even a song that is not Christian like “Wildfire,” for example, which is, you know, a song that you’re of course well known for. It came to you, you said, in a dream. And you said a lot of things about that song over the years. I don’t know if you even believe all the things that you’ve said about the song, but you said that the song maybe even unknown to you when you wrote it, but that you thought it was about freedom.

MURPHEY: It was about being set free from whatever your shackles are. And in the Bible it says Jesus is coming back on a white horse, and that white horse, I think at the time in the book of Revelation, was a symbol of freedom. Because a white horse is what it king rode. And it says that literally in the Bible, whether you take that literally or not. As a cowboy, I do. And I just decided that it would infuse everything I wrote. So I’ve tried not to do negative music and I’ve tried not to do things that would influence people the wrong way.

I fell off the chair a couple of times. I made an album called Lone Wolf in a really dark period in my life. And there was nothing in there, you know, about drugs or anything like that or you know, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, as they used to say. But it was a depressing album. And I had a phone call from a a fan, somehow got my phone number, a guy I’d never met and he said — and this is a true story — he said, “I’m sitting here right now contemplating suicide and your album is not helping.”

And I laughed and he said, “No, I’m serious. I’ve got a gun to my head right now. I’m going to commit suicide. I always looked at to you to be this bright light singing positive songs about nature and the world,” and what Albert Sweitzer would call world and life affirmation, which he felt like was the reason why Christian philosophy hung on over the years. Because in spite of some verses that people misinterpret, Jesus was a world and life affirming person, you know? He wasn’t going around teaching you got to give up all the things of the world. If you really want to be spiritual, you really want to be, you know, in touch with the spirit and all this, you’ve got to be a selfish person who drops out of everything else so that she can work on your soul and your spiritual enlightenment. But what good’s that spiritual enlightenment in this world, you know, if that’s all you work on. 

So I got into songs that encourage people after that. I told the guy, I said, I promise you tonight that if you won’t do that, that I will always think about songs that give some kind of encouragement. I’m not going tell you I’m never going to write another sad song, but that sad song’s going to leave a way out. It’s going to leave you a way out. And that’s when I really got into the writings of John Gardner who taught at SUNY. He was was a great novelist and he wrote a book on you can be a great artist and have a horrible effect on the world. Witnessed the great film maker that worked for Adolf Hitler, the woman who made these incredible films that just inspired people to follow the Nazi way, you know, by making Adolf Hitler look like a god. And making the whole Nazi thing look like something that just had to happen to save the world.

So I got into really thinking deeply about the content of my music again. In the beginning I did, I kinda got away from it and then I came back. So when I confronted being in mainstream country music, I just noticed that I was always being pushed to do a song that was anti-family, anti-marriage, negative, a world and life destroying, self-destructive, drinking songs, cheating songs, and all that. Even songs that made all that stuff sound cool. And I said, were supposed to be the great American music here. Country music’s supposed to be the, you know, God, country, and apple pie music. And guess what. It’s not. It’s just as negative and just as destructive as anything in rock and roll, if not more so. So I promised myself at that point that I was going to do those kinds of positive songs. It was an incredible challenge and struggle to get that done.

I had started with that kind of a feeling when I was doing “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” you know, and doing those early albums. But then I got away from it when my own life kind of turned dark and then I realized why I became a Christian when I was a young man and it turned me all around. And I know that that was the guidance of the Holy Spirit inside of me as a Christian who had become a Christian as a very young man. But you still going through a process with all that.

SMITH: You turn back to cowboy music, at least that was a part of the of the turn. And you said you sought out Roy Rogers and he offered you some advice. So what was that advice that he gave you?

MURPHEY: Well, Roy told me two things. He said, first of all, if you want to be a singing cowboy, you have to live by the code that me and Jean and all the other guys live by in public, even though some of them didn’t live by and in private. And he said at first neither did I. He said that our public code was never do anything that would send a kid down the wrong trail. And I rolled my eyes and I said, boy, that’s just so corny. Then I went home that night and before I laid down my head on the pillow, I thought, you know, what if I challenged myself to never do anything that would send a kid down the wrong trail? That’s actually the most profound thing anybody’s ever told me. If every single day you got up and said, “Today I’m not going to do anything that would damage a child.” And so that was a big thing. The other thing he told me was if you want to be a singing cowboy, get yourself a good looking horse because when you get old and ugly, the kids will still let the horse. [laughter]

SMITH: You know, Roy Rogers advice is profoundly biblical, right? I mean, Jesus said it would be better to have a millstone put around your neck and thrown into a deep ocean rather than to lead a little child astray. That’s Jesus saying something not too different from what Roy Rogers said.

MURPHEY: You know, their whole experience with having a Down Syndrome child led them to a much, much deeper faith. And her book, which became a New York Times bestseller, which was practically self published, she had a backer, because the other publishing companies thought it was too hokey. When she talked about being so proud of that child, that book had a big influence on me as a child because my mother read it and handed it over to me. And that was a book called Angel Unaware, which is based on the statement in Corinthians, “We’ve often met angels and we were unaware.” She’s talking about her own daughter that was born to her and she was an angel but we weren’t aware of it. This angel came to teach us a lesson. And that book that she wrote influenced the world to start taking care of handicapped people. So I also had throughout my life, this deep feeling that you need to do, even though it won’t save you, you need to do good things for humanity. You need to try to turn things around for people that come within your sphere of influence. I think, again, Albert Sweitzer probably said it best. He said it isn’t selfish to just keep it within your sphere of influence. You don’t have to save the whole world. You don’t have time. But whatever comes within your sphere of influence, you are responsible for.

SMITH: Murph, one of the things that I think I’ve noticed and it may have been true of you throughout your life because I know even in the Austin era, which is kind of where we started this conversation, there was a community of folks around you and y’all were — Gary P. Nunn was in your band. And then he was in Jerry Jeff’s band and then there were, you know, just all this movement around and mutual support. So maybe it’s been there all along with you, but it seems to me lately it’s been, you know, I notice it in — and I’ll just use one example from the Austinology album — where you have a band, The Last Bandoleros, a bunch of young guys, amazing little band, and they backed you on “LA Freeway” and a lot of other songs as well. Do you feel a certain responsibility to the next generation of musicians coming along or are they finding you or is it a little of both?

MUSIC: [“LA Freeway”]

MURPHEY: Age has never meant anything to me my entire life. My best friends when I was a child and right on through the young years of my life were older people. My grandfather, when I got into the music industry, I thought Johnny Cash is the greatest thing in the world. I liked all the old Grand Ole Opry stars. I loved Ernest Tubb, eventually got to be friends with him. You know, I met Roy Acuff. Here I was a long haired hippie musician from Austin finally getting a chance to be on the Grand Ole Opry. When I first met Roy Acuff if I just was, you know, almost in tears, you know. I think what the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did for us when they made Will the Circle Be Unbroken album and they melted those old country singers together with the new generation of it, that was a big favor. And that’s why I said instantly yes, when they asked me to be on that project.

So I just look at talent and I try to look through people’s eyes into their soul and into their heart and who they are. You know, I think it’s terrible that we have this overemphasis now on the young and that if you’re 45 years old starting out in country music, you never have a chance. It shouldn’t be that way. You can be a great musician at any age. And if you don’t believe that, listened to Vladimir Horowitz’s Return concert after he didn’t play for 25 years because he thought the arthritis in his hands kept him from making any mistakes and he came back and he did this concert. Just go and buy that album, his first Carnegie Hall Return Concert. And you will not believe it. It’s such an overwhelming reaction on the part of the audience to a guy who had a certain style. And even though he makes mistakes in that concert and says he’s going to before he even walks up there, you know, you go, yeah, you can do it right up until the very last, even when your fingers are hurting, if you’ve got something to say. So I do recognize young musicians, but I also am happy to include older people and it’s starting to get harder to find those.

SMITH: Well, Murph, as I said, I hope you have many, many years more ahead of you, but I think it’s fair to say that for you and for me, we’ve probably got more years behind us than ahead of us. One day, maybe 50 or 100 years from now, whenever they’re, you know, sort of rehearsing the Great American Song Book and a couple of Michael Martin Murphey songs show up. What do you want them to think about you? What do you want them to think about your music when you’re gone?

MURPHEY: I want it to be music that made you think about your soul and think about your responsibility in life and what work you’re supposed to do. I think we can all have a calling in that respect and I think I want it to be remembered as something that was poetic about the human beings that God created and the things that they’re capable of. Let’s stop focusing on the horrible things that we do, and start emphasizing the wonderful things that we do, because I think that’s what Jesus wanted us to do. I think that’s what God wants us to do, is to concentrate on our good side. And there’s a lot of that out there. There is so much out of that out there that’s not being told. Our America today is one of the most charitable countries in the world. There’s no way I could accept as many invitations as I get to do charity events. And I just think that’s great that people are constantly trying to find a cure to cancer. They’re trying to find cure for AIDS or trying to find a cure for this. They’re trying to change this. They’re trying to change that. That’s my America that I love.

So I want people to remember me as somebody who thought about that as what can we do to be charitable and help other people solve problems that they just can’t seem to get out of right now. How can we be a friend? How can we reach out an extensive hand it to somebody who’s in need? That’s not a bleeding heart liberal statement, that’s just something that’s fun. You know, if you can finally get around to the idea that that kind of stuff is fun, that kind of stuff is the best fun you’ll ever have in life is helping somebody else and the feeling that you get from that. In some sense it’s almost selfish. You know, I don’t think I could live without it. [laughter]

(Photo/Cactus Theater)

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One comment on “Listening In: Michael Martin Murphey

  1. Diane Kenny says:

    Great interview. Really enjoyed it. Meeting MMM is on my bucket list.

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