Jinelle Boyd interview with Michael
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
that around the time of Prohibition – did that come into play at
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
Go check out MICHAEL
MARTIN MURPHEY'S music and DVD on MyTexasMusic!