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February 17, 2014IM -
Most would call a four-decade music career impressive in and of itself, but for Michael Martin Murphey of Local 433 (Austin, TX), there is much more to come. Murphey began his professional career in the music industry in 1960s. Surprisingly, he says he got a late start compared to other artists of his era.
“I was in my late 20s, and at the time, if you didn’t find success in your early 20s, you might as well call it a career,” he says. The reason for his longevity in this rapidly changing business, he believes, is staying true to oneself and always putting family first.
Murphey’s dad, a Baptist deacon, supported his dreams, but also kept Murphey grounded. At 17 years old Murphey was asked to co-host a show called Hometown Hootenanny. When his parents would not allow him to take time away from school, he was forced to turn it down. At the time, he was heartbroken, but he says, “I am grateful for my parents doing that now. They wanted me to get an education.”
While most artists jump-start their careers as early as they can, Murphey, now 66, reluctantly held off. Postponing his music calling by a few years to finish school may have worked to Murphey’s benefit, giving him a chance to mature and grow as a person.
Today, he’s thankful for the education he received and the irreplaceable experiences he gained from college. He encourages today’s young musicians to become informed. “Educate yourself, one way or the other; there is no way around the basics,” he says. “They will serve you well your entire life.” Murphey’s patient approach to success has certainly helped his music stand the test of time.
Murphey does not believe he has done it alone, though. The support he has from loved ones has had a cathartic effect on his career. Not only has his family had hands-on input into his achievements, but by being heavily involved in his career, they provided emotional support as well. And, Murphey explains that having a supportive family puts everything into perspective when faced with the glitz and glamour of the music industry.
Of course, living on a ranch helps with that as well. When not touring the country, Murphey can be found carrying hay bales around his homestead, or helping his daughter perfect her horseback riding. Grounded and humble is an understatement; Murphey lives the songs he writes to the core.
To Murphey, country music holds a deep connection to his lifestyle. “The rural people of our nation created country music,” he says, explaining how country music, and cowboy tunes in particular, puts people at ease and relaxes them. “Cowboy logic cuts through what cowboys do. And the songs cut right to the heart.”
Growing up in Dallas, Texas, Murphey has a special bond with the southern lifestyle. He first discovered his future profession, by spontaneously performing at a church service, at the tender age of three. He still recalls how the experience moved him: “The feedback and applause totally motivated me to do music.” When he was five years old his grandfather, who was a musician himself, gave Murphey a ukulele. Murphey developed a special love for cowboy songs and stories as his talents grew and he began performing locally.
After turning down the co-host position with Hometown Hootenanny, Murphey went to the University of California where he studied poetry and writing. On the side, he kept creating music and gradually learned the ropes of the business while playing L.A. folk clubs.
A longtime union supporter, Murphey joined the AFM in 1967, before his first big breaks in performing and songwriting. In 1968, he left L.A. for the San Gabriel Mountains, where his songwriting career took off with songs recorded by Flatt & Scruggs and Bobbie Gentry. Then, Kenny Rogers recorded an entire album (The Ballad of Calico) of Murphey’s songs.
Murphey signed his first solo recording contract in 1971. His first of six gold records came in 1975, when the song “Wildfire” rose to number three on the pop charts. One of the most played songs in the history of radio, it was the result of a dream Murphey had as an adult, inspired by a story his grandfather once told him about a ghost horse that rescued people in the desert.
To date, Murphey has recorded more than 35 albums, most recently returning to his first love, cowboy music. His résumé includes working with some of the greatest names in music, from Willie Nelson of Local 433 to the Beach Boys. He is honored to be the first Singing Cowboy to achieve a Certified Gold Album in Cowboy Music since Marty Robbins.
A prolific writer, his songs have been recorded by Lyle Lovett of Local 257 (Nashville, TN), John Denver, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jerry Jeff Walker of Local 433, Doyle Lawson of Local 257 and Quicksilver, and more. He even worked in the film industry as a scriptwriter and actor in a series of films in the 1980s, and performed music for the films Lonesome Dove and Hard Country, among others.
A country music pioneer of the social media trend, he was one of the first Western singers to have a website. He says that it has helped him to reach fans outside the country music genre. In this way, Murphey quietly reinvents himself with changes to the music industry, without ever leaving his roots.
As time changes, so does the bridge between artist and audience, he explains. “Social media is just another way to stay connected with fans.” Developing his web presence also helps Murphey to gather audiences of all ages. He explains that young people are often fascinated with older musicians who have sustained a long music career. “Being able to attract their attention is about focusing on creativity,” he says.
Receiving countless accolades for his musical performances and song writing, Murphey has a tough time deciding which performances were the most memorable.
Some of his fondest musical memories involve playing at major concert venues. Murphey recalls, “I was one of the first cowboy singers to play Carnegie Hall.” For him, this was very meaningful because it helped put Western music on the map.
Another noteworthy performance was when he appeared with the National Symphony Orchestra. His first orchestra performance was in 1985, and he’s worked with more than 50 orchestras throughout his career, always maintaining connections to the symphony world. He believes that orchestral and Western music are special because the two seemingly unlike genres have a similar way of touching people. That’s why Murphey has found a way to fit them both into his music. “Like every color that could be used on the canvas, Western music works well with the symphony,” he says.
Aside from making music, Murphey is a spokesman and entertainer for The American Farm Bureau Federation and Society of Range Management. He is host of the outdoors television show The Best of the West with Michael Martin Murphey. He humbly adds, “I am doing everything I can to keep the word ‘country’ real. I am a rancher and a farmer.”
Murphey makes it his mission to keep the music honest and “share with people in the urban environment a little slowed wisdom,” through music that is genuine and real.
Murphey continues to tour, performing the cowboy music he knows and loves, at venues across the country, with a genuine love of the lifestyle. Finding a way to balance a down-to-earth lifestyle and music career is no easy task. But Murphey’s greatest pride is his family whose support plays a key role in his success.