Murphey, Michael Martin
Michael Martin Murphey
Michael Martin Murphey has not only blazed a trail through pop music and into country as a performer, he has reaped considerable success by writing songs as well. His youthful good looks notwithstanding, Murphey is a seasoned veteran of the music business—he wrote hit songs for the pop group the Monkees and singer Kenny Rogers in the 1960s and made the pop charts himself in the 1970s. He was well into his thirties when his western-influenced country songs made him a star in Nashville. Today he is one of the most highly regarded recording artists in all of country music.
In Who’s Who in New Country Music, Andrew Vaughan noted that Murphey’s “longevity and determination have certainly paid off.” The critic added that Murphey’s career “proves that country music will embrace those artists more concerned with their art and integrity than big bucks.” The singer has had major country hits with such singles as “A Long Line of Love,” “Don’t Count the Rainy Days,” “Talkin’ to the Wrong Man,” and “What She Wants.” More recently, a long-standing interest in the culture and history of the cowboy led to the release of Cowboy Songs, the first high-profile album of cowboy music to come from Nashville in more than twenty years.
Murphey was born in Texas and spent his youth on family farms and ranches where his relatives ran cattle. He was comfortable in a saddle from an early age and was fascinated by the songs he heard on the range. “There was a lot of music sung while they were working,” Murphey remembered of his family in the Chicago Tribune. “I learned a lot of it from being around people who were working cattle, and my uncle, who was and is a real fan of music, had tons of 78 [r.p.m.] records by people like [western singers] Carl T. Sprague, Jules Verne Allen and other guys that go back way before [singing cowboy and actor] Roy Rogers.” At the age of 17, Murphey took his first job in the music industry—he played western songs around the campfire at a Texas ranch.
As a youth Murphey also enjoyed other musical genres, including the country and folk music of such performers as Hank Williams, Bob Wills, and Woody Guthrie. After high school he moved to California where he played guitar with the pop group The Lewis and Clark Expedition and attended the University of California, Los Angeles, majoring in medieval history. Murphey was anxious to work his way into the music business as a singer and songwriter, however, seeing little disparity between his education and the career he wanted to follow. Murphey illustrated this for Country Music’s Michael Bane:”I was fascinated with the troubadour, the old oral tradition…. You go back and read classic history,
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist, c. 1962—. Singer with the Lewis and Clark Expedition and songwriter for the Monkees, Kenny Rogers, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, c. 1966-70; solo artist, c. 1971—; scored first pop hit with “Wildfire,” 1975; toured the U.S. and abroad. Founder of annual WestFest, a two-day celebration of the culture and music of the American West.
Awards: Named best new artist of the year by the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, 1984; Grammy Award nomination for “A Face in the Crowd” ; National American Video Award nomination for “What She Wants.”
Addresses: Office— P.O. Box FFF, Taos, NM 87571. Record company —Warner Bros., 1815 Division St., P.O. Box 120897, Nashville, TN 37212.
most of it comes from recited history … [and] the traveling minstrels. The closest thing we have in modern life is the wandering musician, the songwriter.”For a time he lived hand-to-mouth in the Mojave Desert, writing songs for Kenny Rogers and country duo Flatt & Scruggs. His big break came through Mike Nesmith, an old friend from Texas.
Nesmith, himself a folk-rock singer, had landed a job with The Monkees, an enormously popular television pop group. At Nesmith’s request, Murphey wrote a song for a Monkees album—“What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round”—and the album sold some five million copies. The success of that song earned Murphey a song publishing contract with Screen Gems. He penned a few more numbers for The Monkees but soon became disenchanted with the Los Angeles scene.
In 1971 Murphey returned to Texas and became an active member of the so-called “outlaw” movement there. He played and sang, mixing such genres as country, rock, and folk, and was often on the bill with other maverick performers such as Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. One of his best-known songs from this period is “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” a forceful plea for Indian rights that became an unofficial anthem for the Indian movement in the early 1970s.
As a very young man, Murphey had written a sentimental song about a woman and her wild pony. He was not particularly fond of the song, and he put off recording it. Seven years later, after the constant urging of a sister-in-law, he finally released the piece. “Wildfire” became a Number One pop hit in 1975, Murphey’s first. The singer had another charted pop release the following year with “Carolina in the Pines.”
Murphey’s success in the pop format was fleeting, mainly because he preferred to sing and write country music. By 1979 he was living in New Mexico and creating songs based on country, rock, Spanish, Indian, and western styles. He also decided to add his middle name “Martin” to his professional name, and this added to the confusion about exactly who and where he was. He did not languish in obscurity for long, however. By the mid-1980s he was a regular on the country charts, with hits such as “What’s Forever For,” “What She Wants,” and “Don’t Count the Rainy Days.”
In 1984 Murphey was named “best new artist” by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. The irony was not lost on the performer, who, at that point, had been a professional musician for more than 15 years. Murphey was glad for the recognition, however, and he has lived up to his potential by producing still more hit singles, including “A Long Line of Love” and a Grammy Award-nominated duet with singer Holly Dunn, “A Face in the Crowd.” Murphey also scored a hit with a song he sings with his son Ryan. Based on a real incident, in which Ryan sought his father’s advice about women, “Talkin’ to the Wrong Man” affords a poignant view of father-son relations and concerns that leap from generation to generation.
Late in 1990 Murphey released an album on which he had labored for several years. The work, Cowboy Songs, was not expected to be a commercial success, since there hadn’t been a recording of authentic cowboy music in more than two decades. Even Murphey was reluctant to release singles or make music videos based on the project. He reconsidered this decision, however, and the first single, “Cowboy Logic,” became a hit. The song helped to sell the album, which performed far better than expected.
Quite apart from its commercial success, Cowboy Songs earned the praises of country and folk music critics nationwide. Chicago Tribune correspondent Jack Hurst, for instance, called the work “not only one of the finest albums of [the] year but also one of the finest of the last decade. Its 22 riveting cuts represent a labor of not only love but also scholarship; it raises a cult musical genre to the level of mainstream art.” Hurst concluded that Cowboy Songs “is a hands-down masterpiece capable of wringing laughter, sadness, and sometimes even terror from its hearers.”
Cowboy Songs certainly reflects an ongoing interest in Murphey’s case—the artist has long been a champion of the western wilderness and its creatures. In 1986 he founded an annual festival, WestFest, celebrating western art and culture, and he has been almost single-handedly responsible for resurrecting the cowboy’s image in Nashville. Richmond Times-Dispatch contributor Molly Carpenter noted: “Murphey’s love for the American West clearly comes through in his songs, painted with vivid images of the rugged mountains and vast deserts of southwest landscapes, all evidence of his travels from his native Texas to California’s Mojave Desert, Colorado’s Rockies and the wild diversity of New Mexico, his home for the past 10 years.” In a further effort to preserve the traditions of the West, Murphey has led a group of performers in a combination poetry reading and songfest called “Cowboy Logic.” Murphey—along with poet and cowboy Waddie Mitchell and Don Edwards, a western music historian and troubadour—has taken the improvisational show to such unlikely places as New York and Las Vegas because, as he maintained in the New York Times, he wants “to make people take a second look at the agrarian tradition of [the] country and the culture it has produced. The basis of all economy is growing things and producing food. Without an agricultural tradition that is respected, a country dies,”
Murphey is also concerned with issues other than the survival of western culture, including Indian rights and finding a middle ground between ranchers and activists on opposite sides of environmental problems. Murphey feels he has more opportunity than most to be “a real citizen involved in the community instead of being a guy who lives over the hill and plays the guitar or sits around town being a personality,” as he explained in a Warner Bros. press release.
Not all of Murphey’s songs are about the land out West. Many of his best-known country hits are more personal—glimpses of family life, love, and heartbreak. Murphey told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Periodically I like to write music about people because I’ve written so many songs about landscapes and other things.” He concluded with a laugh, “I mean, my biggest hit was about a horse.”
The Heart Never Lies, EMI America, 1986.
Tonight We Ride, Warner Bros., 1986.
Americana, Warner Bros., 1987.
Best of Michael Martin Murphey, EMI America, 1987.
River of Time, Warner Bros., 1988.
Land of Enchantment, Warner Bros., 1989.
The Best of Country, Curb/CEMA, 1990.
Cowboy Songs, Warner Bros., 1990.
Cowboy Christmas: Cowboy Songs II, Warner Bros., 1991.
Wide-Open Country, Warner Bros., 1993.
Cowboy Songs III, Warner Bros., 1993.
Blue Sky Night Thunder (includes “Wildfire” and”Carolina in the Pines “), Epic.
Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir, A&M.
Geronimo’s Cadillac, A&M.
Michael Martin Murphey (includes” What’s Forever For”), Liberty.
Also recorded albums Swans Against the Sun and Flowing Free Forever.
Vaughan, Andrew, Who’s Who in New Country Music, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Atlanta Constitution, April 8, 1988.
Atlanta Journal/Atlanta Constitution, May 10, 1986.
Chicago Sun-Times, August 1, 1990.
Chicago Tribune, January 27, 1985; May 22, 1988; September 23, 1990; December 2, 1990.
Country Music, July/August 1991; November/December 1992.
Houston Post, June 3, 1991.
New York Times, May 22, 1992.
People, February 24, 1986; March 23, 1987; August 1, 1988.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 14, 1989.
Stereo Review, June 1986; December 1987; January 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Warner
Bros. press material, 1990.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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