Interview with Michael Martin Murphey


October 2006
Jinelle Boyd interview with Michael Martin Murphey
I’m sitting at a table with the world’s #1, best-selling singer/songwriter of American Cowboy Music (not to mention pop and country-western music icon), Michael Martin Murphey.  "Murph" as he is called, is as comfortable to be around as the songs he writes.  He is dressed smartly – pressed long-sleeved shirt, vest, jeans and boots, and his trademark blonde beard and mustache are neatly combed.  He is as striking today as he was when he first broke onto the music scene three decades ago, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the view.  He laughs easily, and possesses an enormous amount of knowledge that he is more than happy to share.  Murph has just released his brand new project, “Heartland Cowboy”, a 2-disc set on his own record label, proudly carried on MyTexasMusic.com.  As many of our readers know, the only music carried on MTM is obtained directly from the artist, so they are able to recoup the maximum proceeds for their hard work.  Murph hosted our Texas Music Awards in 2006, and we now proudly count him as one of our Platinum members. Our interview lasted close to two hours, so I’ve seriously condensed the results here.  I hope you find this discussion with Murph as satisfyingly enjoyable as I did.

Jinelle: Tell us about your connection with Texas.

Murph: Well, I was born and raised in the Oak Cliff area, just south of Dallas, and spent the first twenty or so years in this state.  I went to school in the Dallas public school system, but I spent the summer-times in the East Texas area because my Grandfather had a ranch out here.  So I was familiar with the Piney Woods and the Big Thicket kind of ranching…much different than it is in West Texas.   I also had an Uncle who was a large animal doctor out in West Texas – my Uncle Billy – so I got to see both sides of it. 

Jinelle : So you’ve been around animals since you were very young – is that when you first discovered your love for horses?  And was it also in your youth that you first discovered your musical talent?

Murph: I fell in love with the whole idea of cowboys and horses from a very early age.  But the musical influence came from my Grandfather Murphey who was not a cowboy, but a career Navy man who lived in Hawaii. 

Jinelle: Was your Uncle musical in some way?

Murph: He played instruments – he gave me a ukelele when I was young – because of the Hawaiian music.  But we played all kinds of music on the ukelele.  It became a real boon to me because as a young child my hands weren’t big enough to play a big guitar.  So a ukelele has a small neck which made it easy for me to make the shapes for the chords.

Jinelle: You mentioned that your family roots were in East Texas…do you know how far back?

Murph: The whole Murphey clan is from the Tyler/Marshall area, going back to the 1830’s.  Downtown Tyler has a building with a historical marker on it – it says “Murphey the Jeweler” and Archibald Murphey, when he came here in 1858, founded this pawn shop…so they were in here not long after the colonies got started and just after Texas became a state. 

Jinelle: Lucky (Boyd, co-founder of MyTexasMusic.com) has said for years that your song, “Cosmic Cowboy” was the inspiration for him to first pick up a guitar.  I know there are many Texas musicians who were also inspired by your music.  Is there anyone in particular  - that one songwriter – that really stood out to you?

Murph: My grandfather gave me a bunch of old recordings when I was a kid that he had collected – the old Victrola stuff that eventually became 78’s.  They had stored all their records in the attic at one point.  My uncle said ‘Do you want to take all these records – I know you’re interested in cowboy music and stuff’ – he just gave me all these records and I listened to all these guys…Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams - those people probably had more influence on me than any people who are contemporaries of mine.

Jinelle: You’ve just released a new project, Heartland Cowboy, and it’s got so many great songs on it…Close To The Land is very moving (one of my favorites) – what was your inspiration for that song?

Murph: My grandparents.  It was modeled after the kind of people that they were.  It basically just describes their daily activity and kind of describes the way we are when we’re back home on the ranch – the way we think about life.  And that was a big influence for my grandfather – he prided himself on his fields like a good farmer or rancher would and he worked until way beyond when he should have with the arthritis and everything else, and kept on doing a lot of hard labor on his place.  The only way you could make it was to fix your own fence and do your own contractor work – fortunately he was a carpenter too, a real good carpenter.  It just describes how this couple works and what they did. It’s a tribute to the women involved – my grandmother could do a man’s work and a woman’s work too and that was something to think about.  There were times when she had to take over and that’s pretty much the way it is with women on all the ranches and farms that want to be a part of it.  In the case of my wife, she’s really the ranch manager because I’m gone and my three daughters at home are the cowgirls.  It can function totally on its own without me there and that’s a great relief. 

Jinelle: And as you’ve said before, “The perfect woman is one who can…”

Murph: “…run a Bob-Cat and back a trailer!” That’s on the album!  “When The Wheel Comes Around.”

Jinelle: We’ve really been enjoying the CD at the office – the song “My Country Under God” seems like a real American tune, but nowhere in the song do you hear the mention of “America” or the “USA” – was that intentional?

Murph: That was intentional.  I wanted anybody who wants to found their nation under God to be able to sing it.  It doesn’t even specifically mention Christianity – I’m coming from a place of being a Christian, but I realize that Israel is also a country that is founded under God and there are many, many other countries who feel the same way.  It’s really about where does the power to have a nation and to have moral laws and things that govern how we live – where does that come from? It comes primarily from our religious beliefs and it’s been completely written out from what’s politically correct these days but that’s why the political situation today is so horrendous I think – not that they didn’t have problems before but things just aren’t as clear cut – there are so many gray areas now so that’s why I wrote the song – it’s kind of an anthem to the idea that your land that you own – your private property is a sacred thing – the whole point of the Israelites being led to the promised land is to get to a promised LAND - to get to a place they could call their own where they could worship God or be free to think or believe as they wanted to as a group.  There are a lot of people around the world who still believe that – people mistakenly thought that they were going to take God out of the equation a long time ago and it just hasn’t happened.  We’re, today, in a battle over the morality and the humanity that descends from our spiritual beliefs.  Are we going to say it’s politically correct and it’s okay to allow a group to have certain religious beliefs to extend to wiping out everyone else who doesn’t have their belief? Is that something that really comes down from God or is that something that somebody invented along the way?  I think where the United States of America drew the line was over that issue.  Yes, we’re founded under God, but we’re here to give you freedom to believe as you want to believe as long as that does not interfere with somebody’s life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness.  We hold these truths to be self-evident – “self-evident” – it seems to be obvious that all men are created equal and God gave all these people the individual right to believe as they want to believe – that’s a God-given right, including the God-given right not to believe in God.  We draw the line at anything that will be a violent overthrow of those principles.  The one thing in the constitution that the federal government makes clear is that you can be executed for violent overthrow of the idea of democracy.  It’s pretty interesting when our soldiers take their vows, when they’re sworn into the military, our soldiers never say they will defend the borders of the United States of America – it’s not tied to land, it’s tied to the Constitution – they say “I will defend the Constitution of the United States” – in other words, those principles who are ever so constituted is what we’re defending – whether that be someplace half way across the world or whether that’s here.  We are here to defend OUR Constitution.

Jinelle: Wow - Did you ever teach?

Murph: (laughing) I did teach as a seminar thing but I don’t want to have a career as a teacher – I want to have a career as a gypsy musician.  So I do seminars and workshops and I teach those things and I do that through my adjunct professorship at Utah State University.  They were the ones who asked me to do it and I agreed to do it.  They said ‘you don’t have to live here or be on the faculty – we just want to bring you in to teach American studies and music with the focus on songwriting’ - and that’s the main thing I’ve done for them – seminars and workshops and lectures on songwriting and what songwriting means in the scheme of things in the history of us poor old human beings.  Songwriting is probably the first form of literature that we have – it was around before people could write or write things down and oral stuff was passed along story-to-story, tale-to-tale.  It was a pretty disciplined way that some of those stories were passed on.  When music was added to it or chanting or something like that, then it became an artistic endeavor.  It was storytelling, which is really one step away from gossip and telling what happened and having a professional person who does that.  Poetry and music didn’t really split off from each other until somewhere around the Middle Ages.  Before that it was all done through songs. The Iliad and The Odyssey were sung and were not recited.  Homer was a musician with a harp who was blind – and he went around and sang the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey.  All the poetry that everybody played was pretty much done on the lyre or if there was no instrument involved, then they chanted it.  It was an easy way to remember a lot of things about your culture, and the melody communicated an emotional connection.  So I teach about that.  Why music – why songs? Why do we need them and what do they do? I try to break it down into many types of songs.  The singer/songwriter culture resurfaced in a big way in our time because of the media and communications but it pretty much ruled the roost in the ancient world and then it got lost when poetry and literature kind of got split off from music.  So throughout the Middle Ages (that’s what I call the Dark Ages – when we lost our connection to singer/songwriters) you had these wandering musicians. They were highly trained - in ancient times, in order to be a minstrel, you had to be proficient on your instrument for seven years, then you added the music and the lyrics to it and you learned the other songs of the culture for seven years and after that fourteen years of training, you were considered to be qualified to write your own stuff, but not before that.  You had to apprentice to another mentor – you were apprentice to a wandering minstrel who went around and did this around the country.  Sometimes from kingdom-to-kingdom and sometimes nation-to-nation, but mostly within one kingdom.  And so these minstrels would come in and they would sing about things that happened in other areas.  That was the only way that anybody could understand what was happening in the culture.  A lot of times it was military things that happened…great heroes that were fighting battles – this was the stuff they would write a song about.  It’s good to go back and study the way these guys were – that’s what I aspire to be in my own life - one of those guys – communicating what I know and what I have to say primarily through my music.  

Jinelle: You have some great poetry – especially during the show (recorded the previous weekend at Music City Texas Theater in Linden, TX) – the lead-in to “Wildfire” – about horses not being appreciated…was especially moving.

Murph: We live in a time when there is poetry, but I wouldn’t want to get too far away from music.  I do it in the context of being a musician.  I developed this Lone Cowboy Campfire idea based around the wandering minstrels of the ancient days.  A guy who carries his pack on his back and wanders around writing these songs…that’s what he dedicates his life to doing.  And that’s pretty much what I’ve dedicated my life to doing.   I think songwriting is probably the most underrated, most over-looked form of creativity.  It’s the most prevalent – the most popular – it’s way more popular than novels, it’s more popular than any other form of literature and probably, arguably, more effective than a newspaper article.  When Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind”, it was kind of a protest to the violence that was going on at the time against black people – it had a bigger effect than all the newspaper articles had.  People could remember it – the song stuck.

Jinelle: I know your son Ryan wrote “Bluebonnets” that’s on the new CD…do you think that songwriting is hereditary?

Murph: I’d like to leave that question to the scientists and I’m not sure if they’re ever going to totally figure it out.  But we do know that today genetics have a lot to do with a lot of things that we don’t feel comfortable with saying.  If people put their minds to it they can overcome all kinds of physical and mental problems to become something, but the ability to play music and absorb music…some people who have perfect pitch, they’re just born with it.  They can tell you what a G is or what an E is just by hearing a tone.  I can’t do that – I don’t have perfect pitch that way.  I can tell when something is in or out of tune but whether or not it’s a few degrees under or over an A440 I can’t tell that, but there are people who genetically can.  So yeah, there’s probably people who are born with the ability to sort of play by ear.  Playing by ear has a lot to do with playing the right songs.  I think one of the reasons a lot of kids never make it in music is because they’re not given that ear training to improvise from the very beginning.  When I teach kids to play the guitar, I don’t want them to know any music theory.  I just want them to make a shape on the guitar and make a chord that sounds in tune and sing some notes over it or hear if they can’t really sing and play that and have it sound good – but there are people who don’t sing very good that can still “sing”.  I think if you can’t sing over the top of some chords, you’re probably not going to have a good chance of being a songwriter – but then again that’s only a probability – get these old songwriter teams like Rogers and Hammerstein – one wrote the melodies and one wrote the lyrics.  There were a few where the guy didn’t play an instrument – all he did was write the lyrics.  I think it’s a real good idea for songwriters and lyricists to study poetry.  Poetry gives you an idea on how to put a meter down and use a rhyme.

Jinelle: When you’re writing a song, do you have an idea for the song and start with the words and then add music or do you like to do it the other way?

Murph: I can do it either way but I prefer to start off with a melody.  A melody and chord structure just gives me a “feeling”.

Jinelle: So you’ll just sit and pick and come up with something you like?

Murph: Yeah, that’s more or less it.  I’ll sit at the piano – if you can improvise you can make things up – you’re going to play something different when you’re looking out the window and looking at the mountains, and you’re gonna play something different when you’re looking out the window at the city.  You take your experiences.  To me, music sounds like certain experiences or certain feelings.  And that’s what starts to make me start to see the lyrics.  I do write down titles and phrases and ideas for songs and sometimes I take the concept or the title or the phrases first but pretty soon I have to have a melody to hang all that on.

Jinelle: Is there a particular place at your home you like to be creative – a particular part of the house?

Murph: Well, in the wintertime it’s by the fireplace (laughs) – and then the summertime I’ll go out to my studio and open up all the windows and let the air come in and sit there and play.  I can pretty much write anywhere – I’ve written songs in cars, buses, trucks, on trains – I ride the trains a lot because I can get my guitar out and play along as I ride, whereas on a plane you can’t do that.

Jinelle: Your son Ryan has produced some of your albums - how is it working with him?

Murph: He’s been involved in the production of several albums and he’s a co-producer on the new album.  I love working with Ryan because he really knows my music and how I want to sound – he doesn’t necessarily do what he would do, but he knows how to communicate what I do best.  He’s able to see through to that.  He makes recommendations and adds changes.  Having Ryan in the booth on the other side of the glass while the music is being made is like being in there myself.  I think he’s pretty objective about what he knows I would want the end result to be.  It’s a lot easier for him to tell me, ‘You know, Dad, you’re a little out of tune on that note or that word or that phrase is a little bit off’ – he knows he’s not going to hurt my feelings.  Of course you can’t have a relationship like that with any producer – it’s gotta be somebody who’s your friend and has your best interests at heart. 

Jinelle: The new project is on your own label - a lot of Texas artists are releasing on their own labels as well these days.  Do you see that as an advantage?

Murph: The independent label phenomenon is a result of the decentralization of the recording process.  It used to be that we had to go to Nashville, go to Los Angeles, go in the studio with a certain group of musicians picked by the record company to make a record that sounded good enough for the record company to release on a national level. And that tended to water things down.  Then when recording machines got more and more miniaturized and more affordable, then you could bring your recording into your own house, which I have also done.  Small studios pop up anywhere – you can record in a  situation like that.  I’ll go in a (local) studio and do a guitar/vocal then I’ll email that to my producer in Nashville by MP3.  He’ll play it for the musicians and then they’ll call me on the phone and say ‘we want to change this or that’ and I’ll say ‘okay’ and then they record that.  Then they MP3 me that track and I can hear it much better than over the phone.  I can hear a reasonable facsimile in full fidelity – and be able to say ‘No, I think the bass player should go like this or that’…with ProTools we can even alter some of the notes and send it back and say ‘No, have the bass player play this” and you get the same tone the bass player had, just change the note.

Jinelle: So you’re enjoying the new technology in the recording business?

Murph: Well, I wouldn’t do that for the final master – I like to make changes that way.  Then if they’ll go in and do a track, hopefully they’ll play it all exactly right and we won’t have to go back in and fix anything.  Then they send me that track in two-track form and I’ll do the vocals up in LaCrosse (Wisconsin) or I’ll play my guitar and add that to it and email it back to them and then they put it all together and mix it.  I really, literally, don’t have to be there.  You really can phone in your part now.  But for the most part, I like to go to Nashville and be in the studio with the guys – I’m not saying it goes better that way, but it goes faster because you don’t have that “back and forth”.  The decentralization of the recording process has led to the power for people to live outside of Nashville or LA or NY or Chicago or even Linden, Texas, and make as good a sounding album as you could living in one of the big recording centers.  Then the manufacturing process has also become demystified – there’s any number of companies that will make up CDs for you and packaging and the price has gotten down there.  However, that doesn’t take away the problem of distribution and of getting it out there – that has to be done more through your own channels.  Point is, those channels are as available to you as they are to the big record companies now.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that one of those distributors is going to make a buy or put out as many albums as a big record company would initially – because they might not want to make that investment in somebody that’s unknown.  It all comes down to this – in the final end - you have to have a piece of music that people are in love with and they want to go get it – ‘how do I get this’ – and the only difference between today and 30 years ago is that it’s easier to get it now. 

Jinelle: How do you feel about downloading?

Murph: I think it’s great.  There’s less pirating going on and people are holding on to more royalties now that they’ve got the Napster thing under control then they were when bigger record companies were controlling all the manufacturing because of pirating and people buying the machines and doing counterfeit stuff.  There’s the famous SamGoody story – where Sam Goody was engaging in counterfeiting – they were manufacturing them and putting them out there on the racks.  Some of the big record companies were doing it too.   They were manufacturing in other countries their own artists’ stuff, and not giving the artists any royalties from it.

Jinelle: The new album is a two-disc set.  Why the additional disc?

Murph: We did that as a special package for the Farm Bureau – and that’s not going to be in that form for a long time – that’s just a limited edition because we wanted to raise money for the Farm Bureau‘s foundation for public land rights.  So five dollars of this package goes to the Farm Bureau Foundation to defend people’s land from being confiscated or taken over by eminent domain and that kind of nonsense.

Jinelle: How did your relationship come to be with the Farm Bureau?

Murph: Actually, I joined the Farm Bureau when I had a ranch in New Mexico and I met a guy named Eric Ness in the New Mexico Farm Bureau and became a member of it.  You can join any state’s association, as many states as you want – this isn’t a federal or public bureaucracy – it’s a nonprofit organization that lobbies for agricultural rights – they sell insurance, and have to sell all kinds of financial management tools – that’s how they make their money.  But since it’s a non-profit, once their people get paid, the agents are paid their commissions, it all goes back into a big pot and is used to lobby for things that are favorable to agriculture. So the Farm Bureau in Texas approached me about joining them fairly recently since I’m still a Texas resident – I’ve been a wandering gypsy all my life so I’ve just always kept a Texas residency…I mean, “Where does Murph live?”  I don’t know – I don’t even know where I live!  It’s not a secret – I’ve had places to stay in a number of spots and still do right now, but the truth is, I live on the road.

Jinelle: Do you like it?

Murph: I like it – I made my peace with living on the road a long time ago.

Jinelle: You don’t like to fly, do you?

Murph: I don’t like to fly because it’s not as creative a way to travel – when I’m on trains or a moving vehicle, I can get out my guitar and write songs – it’s just hard to do that on a plane and in airports.  And what’s cool is you don’t have to do the driving, you get three meals a day if you get a sleeper car – I always get a sleeper car because there’s enough room to sit and play the guitar – you can get on a wireless on your laptop – it’s a little more expensive, but remember you’re getting a place to stay with that.  You have to look at what it costs to buy fuel if you’re driving, put miles on your vehicle – it’s (train travel) a little more expensive than flying but when I fly, I spend my day getting to the airport, hassling at the airport, getting on the plane, going somewhere, getting there – same hassle almost as much as there was getting on the plane, getting picked up or to the hotel – you never get to do anything creative until you actually get there.  But how cool is it to be able to look out the window and write a song! (laughing).

Jinelle: This past weekend you performed at the Music City Texas Theater here in Linden, for an upcoming live album.  That’s a huge decision to make – where to record something live.  What made you decide to record here?

Murph: Well, I started off in Texas as a solo acoustic artist, I’ve recorded albums in a lot of places and I’ve recorded live albums in lots of places besides Texas.  But when I found this Music City Texas Theater (I came in here to play as a solo acoustic act), I loved the acoustics and I loved the idea of recording live – going back to my roots as a solo acoustic artist and doing that in Texas.  And doing it in the part of the country where the Murpheys first came to when they came to the West.  

Jinelle : Tell us about your Cowboy Christmas shows.

Murph:  Cowboy Christmas is based on a tradition that started in the 1880s - the tradition spread through a song called the Cowboy Christmas Ball – it was written by a man called Larry Chittenden – he was a New Yorker who came to visit his uncle who had a big ranch out in Anson, Texas and he fell in love with it and wrote a poem about this event called the Cowboy Christmas Ball – he was a fairly well known journalist and writer and came from a very wealthy family, so he didn’t have to make his living doing it – he just did it because he wanted to be a writer – and he wrote this thing and it was published in the Texas Western Gazette which was a local paper in that area – but it found it’s way into the New York Times and a lot of places.  He published a book called Ranch Verses in the 1880s (first in London, not in America) – and the British and the Europeans were more fascinated with the West than we were right here.  So as you can imagine, the song “Cowboy Christmas Ball” became world famous and it just continued to keep on surfacing.  You go through eras and people forget about it.  The Ball continued from the 1880s to the 1930s. 

Jinelle:  Isn’t that around the time of Prohibition – did that come into play at all?

Murph:  When prohibition came in, people preached from the pulpit that the Cowboy Christmas Ball was associated with dancing and drinking, but the truth was, there wasn’t a lot of drinking at the ball – people drank a lot in the 1880s and there was no liquor control board – no control over what was in the bottle, so the liquor was pretty powerful stuff.  The kind of whiskey and liquor they drank in that time could kill you because it wasn’t controlled.  Wyatt Earp in his autobiography said when he was a Buffalo Hunter, he walked into a couple of buffalo camps where they had makeshift saloons set up on two barrels with a board across in a tent and he saw people walk in, take one shot and die.  So that’s why prohibition came in - it really was breaking up a lot of homes and destroying a lot of lives.  Even after prohibition was repealed, they did come in and start trying to control the quality of the liquor and you had to be a registered distiller and you had to say how much was in your whiskey – and you had to be licensed to sell it.  The pulpit and the local people there in parts of Texas tried to close it down.  So the little old lady school teacher named Leonora Barrett said, ‘no, this is a cultural tradition and we need to keep it going’ so she went to various folklore societies and had folklorists write about it and she got the Cowboy Christmas dance group that ran the Ball invited to the first national folk  festival which was in Washington.  Franklin Roosevelt was the man who put his stamp of approval on it, which I believe was 1936.  They sent the Cowboy Christmas Ball dancers to that festival  that brought enough honor and glory to Texas that they decided not to close the ball down.  So here’s this tradition and this song that’s so absolutely Texan and in tradition – I had heard the song since I was a child – but I didn’t know who did it or the history of the ball.  So in 1985 I recorded this song when I first went on Warner Brothers records I told them I don’t have time to make a whole album but I want to put something out so let’s put a single out of the Cowboy Christmas Ball.  They said OK and I got Riders in the Sky to come in and sing on it and we put that out as as a single – later on when I put out Cowboy Songs Vol. 1 album in late 1989, it really took off and they didn’t want to let me make that album, but that’s another story.  The album made it  - it did great – then the next thing you know Jim Ed Norman called me up and said ‘ we want to make another cowboy album’ and I said ‘how about a cowboy Christmas album?’  cause by then I had learned about the Cowboy Christmas Ball and studied the history about it and realized there was still a Ball going – it wasn’t just a song from the old days – they were still going with this thing.  Then we got invited to play the Ball and now we’re in our fifteenth year.




Go check out MICHAEL MARTIN MURPHEY'S music and DVD on MyTexasMusic!

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