He is the recipient of many, many awards, including Best New Singer / Songwriter in the nation for his first album, "Geronimo's Cadillac" (Rolling Stone Magazine); Best New Male Vocalist, Academy Of Country Music 1983; a three time CMA Award nominee; a songwriter whose songs have been recorded by everyone from The Monkees to John Denver to Lyle Lovett; an inductee into the Nebraska Country Music Hall Of Fame; a Gold Record for "Cowboy Songs", the first Gold album in Country music since Marty Robbins; Best Album And Song by The Academy Of Western Artists for the year 2000; inductee into the Western Music Hall Of Fame; passed the 30 million album mark in 2006; and finally, a BMI Award and a Gold Record for "Wildfire", one of the most played songs (4 million radio and television plays) in radio history in all formats.
Michael Martin Murphy is the singer / songwriter we are talking about. Since 1989, he's been putting out a series of Cowboy albums and is about to release "Cowboy Songs Vol. 6". He also has his own record label - Westfest Records and maintains a schedule of 200 concerts a year.
Q - You've been through these parts before, haven't you?
A - I know Syracuse. I've been to Syracuse lots of times. In fact, I think that's where the New York State Fair still is, isn't it?
Q - It certainly is!
A - I've played The New York State Fair. Had a great time. Absolutely packed house. Played Cowboy music for all those upstate New Yorkers. There was a lot of Cowboy hats there and a lot of Country people. New York just doesn't get the credit for being the great farm state it is.
Q - I consulted my Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock about you. They refer to you as one of the original "Cosmic Cowboys". Now what is a "Cosmic Cowboy"?
A - (laughs) Actually, I coined the phrase. So, you would think that means I know what it means. (laughs)
Q - And you don't?
A - Not all assumptions are true. Here's what happened: Cosmic was a phrase at the time in the late '60s, early '70s, which referred to somebody who was a little "spaced" out. So, we were in New York playing a gig when I released my first album, "Geronimo's Cadillac". I don't remember where we were playing...one of those famous coffee houses. It was a venue that would take Country, Country / Rock and Folk. I can't quite remember which one it was. On top of the hotel, it was a sunny day, lounging around the pool, with the sun coming down on us. We'd had a hard, hard drive to New York. We'd gone through Boston, a bunch of Austin hippie musicians crammed into a van. So, we definitely needed some rest. We're up there on top and Bob Livingstone, who was my bass player at the time, said "Hey, Jerry Jeff's gonna be in town, playing at the same place we are tonight." I said "Oh, we'll have to go down there and see him." Then he called me back later that afternoon and said "No, Jerry Jeff is not gonna be in town at the same place. It could be across town tonight and tomorrow. Let' get him to come to the show." So, then I said something to the effect, "Well, Jerry Jeff is just one of those cosmic guys. He's always kind of spaced out." So, we started laughing about that and I wrote the song "Cosmic Cowboy". It was actually a satirical song, satirizing all the spaced out cowboys in Austin, Texas at the time. You know, the cross pollination between Hippie and Cowboy. Basically Hippie and Red-Neck was a really interesting cross-breed. That's really what made the Austin music, 60s and early 70s hippie stuff combined with kind of the red-neck mentality. Texas accents and Country music. Today, if you look at a lot of the motorcycle guys that go up and down the road, they listen to Country music. Everybody would think it's always been that way, but it hasn't (been). Country music at the time was for short-haired people who were straight and politically right-wing. The Hippie music and Rock 'n' Roll, Country Rock was more for people who were left-wing politically and living an alternative lift style. All of a sudden you get those two things together and it really causes some interesting fireworks and sparks and a lot of laughs. So, we wrote this song "Cosmic Cowboy", which when Jerry Jeff came down to the show, I said "Let's pull this out." I had written it out on some napkins. I took it out and put it on the music stand and sang it for him while he was in the audience. He thought it was hilarious too. So, the next thing you know, it was picked up and made into an anthem and people started called everybody in progressive Country music "Cosmic Cowboy". It occurred to me people were getting a little too serious about this. (laughs) It's just definitely not a serious thing.
Q - So, you're the guy who inspired Willie Nelson to get out of a suit and tie and grow a beard and long hair. And here I always thought he did it on his own.
A - You know, we all make decisions on our own. What influences us around us in the environment, is what drags us into those decisions, but ultimately we all have to take responsibility for the decisions we make, even one as simple and innocent as growing your hair out or cutting it. When I first met Willie Nelson, he came to a place called Mother Earth, which was again kind of a Cosmic Cowboy, Hippie hang-out in Austin where I played from time to time, along with the Armadillo World Headquarters, and he was in a suit and tie. Had short hair. No beard. He came in with Eddie Wilson, who was the head of the Armadillo World Headquarters. Eddie came up to me after the show and said "Hey, do you know who this is?" I said "Sure I do. That's Willie Nelson." I was a Country music fan. I grew up with Country music and sang Cowboy music from the time I was a kid. I said "Sure I know who it is. I'm honored to meet you sir." Willie said "This is quite a scene you got going down here with all the young people and the long-haired crowd and the hippie crowd diving into Country music." Well, Willie's house had just burned down in Nashville and he was looking for a place to re-locate and decided to come to Texas. Six months later, his hair was long and we did a show at Armadillo World Headquarters. A year later, his hair was even longer and he just kept growing it until it got to be down the middle of his back. He wanted to access that audience that we played for at the Armadillo World Headquarters, Mother Earth and other places. His Country music fans were really shocked when this started to develop for Willie Nelson, 'cause he already had quite a career, playing just sort of straight and he had quite a few hits. Nobody ever thought Willie Nelson would ever do that. He worked for Ray Price. Roger Miller was in that band with Ray Price as a back-up musician before he started cutting his own records and he had quite a few hits before that happened. I think it was the influence of the general scene that I was a part of. Jerry Jeff never grew his hair long. I think he had a beard for a while. He always had short hair. I remember his hair was a little bit longer when he lived in New York. When he moved to Texas, he cut it off. Once in a while he grew a beard, but most of the time he had short hair and was clean shaven. I guess it was the influence of me and my band and the cross-pollination between Country, hippie progressive Country music, Country Rock, that influenced Willie to do that, to change is image around.
Q - And from "Cosmic Cowboy" a term popped up called "Outlaw Music", which applied to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
A - Yeah, they called it that because most of us who were recording in Nashville, left the Nashville scene and moved to Austin, Texas. I recorded in Nashville, but never lived there. In Waylon's case and Willie's case, Waylon got a house down there in Texas, but always had a house in Nashville. Willie just completely left Nashville and didn't come back. Tompall Glaser, who was part of the original Outlaw album that came out, he was from Texas, but always lived in Nashville. Actually, the first album that was called "Outlaw" came out at the festival that was put on in Oklahoma, not in Texas. I think there were some live recordings. That song, "Ladies Love Outlaws" that Waylon Jennings put out, just got to be known as the Outlaw Movement. We were all considered outlaws because we were trying to de-centralize the heavily centralized music business. There was Los Angeles, New York and Nashville. And you pretty much had to be in one of those three towns in order to make records. So, in order to be in the serious music business, I moved from Los Angeles back to Texas. I was living out there working as a songwriter. Willie, as I said, moved from Nashville. Some of the other guys got places in Texas, but remained living in Nashville, although they were considered outsiders when they started to relate to this progressive Country music. Nashville was heavily resistant to what we were doing. In fact, I clearly remember that I went up to Nashville to do some interviews during that time, the late '60s, early '70s. I went to do an interview with Ralph Emery of The Ralph Emery Show and Ralph had a Burritos Brothers album tacked on the outside of his door with a big red marker message written across it that said "This is not Country music", with "not" underlined a couple of times. Ralph eventually changed his mind on that. (laughs)
Q - People are always resistant to changes in music.
A - I gotta say this: music is not politics. The music industry tends to run it like politics because they need a genre, because radio needs a genre...needs a pigeon hole. They need to be able to say a station is either Country or Bluegrass or Jazz or Rock or in the case of satellite radio it's broken down to sub-genres. They have to have those pigeon holes. Musicians don't think that way. We didn't think that way in Austin. We played Rock. We played Country. We played Jazz. We played everything. My music was a wide range of stuff. It's just that we didn't rule it out. Today I think people get up on their soap box about the way things have changed. I just really think it's silly. I really don't think it matters. If you like what you hear, you like what you hear. Unfortunately, it should not be pigeonholed. It's kind of like politics. They get pigeonholed...I'm a Republican, I'm a Democrat. And then you got the Independents. I think musicians and people who actually make music are Independents, musically. Seldom are they hooked on just one genre. In my case, Country may be my area of expertise, but I love just about everything that's done well.
Q - It's interesting you should say that. I always point out to Rock groups I interview that only the Beatles were not locked into a sound or look for their entire career. How the Beatles changed from "Meet The Beatles" to Sgt. Pepper".
A - That's because they had a wide range of musical taste and as they got more powerful, they exploited that. They expressed themselves that way. There'd be songs that sounded jazzy. There'd be songs that sounded like Broadway stuff. Gosh, "Michelle" is a Broadway tune, practically. There was Ragtime influence. There was Blues influence. There was Rock influence and everything in-between with those guys, because really what they were was songwriters. Just songwriters. I think singer / songwriters and bands that write their own songs have a tendency to have a wide ranging sound because songwriters like to tinker around with different musical forms and they like to cross breed 'em.
Q - You worked as a staff songwriter at Screen Gems for five years. How many hits did you write for other people whole you were there?
A - Gee, I don't know. I've lost count. I really don't know the exact number, but I wrote a lot of songs for a lot of people and I'm still doing it. I started off as a songwriter, played songs with people and then got my own record deal. I think that had a big influence on how I ran my career. I saw a lot of people who were very unhappy in the music business. They were dependent on finding a song if they didn't write it themselves. They were so dependent on finding a hit. After they had that hit, they had to find another one and another one. They didn't have much creative direction and if things fell off for them in their career, they couldn't fall back on being songwriters. So, I firmly founded my life on being a songwriter. That doesn't mean I didn't do other people's material, because I have, but I firmly founded it on being a songwriter. I think I've been happier by being a songwriter and sticking to my own vision of what a song oughta be. If I couldn't find a song that fit my vision, I'd write one.
Q - You didn't start off writing to be a musician, did you? You wanted to join the Southern Baptist ministry. You studied Greek at North Texas State university and creative writing at UCLA. So what turned your head around?
A - Music was always tied in within. The reason I studied medieval history and ancient history is because I was fascinated with the role the minstrel, ancient minstrels played in society. They were the singer / songwriters of their day. It was my intention to write a doctoral thesis on that subject, because it had never been pulled together in songwriting as a world historical phenomenon. It had never been pulled together in a book or a study. So, I really wanted to do that. But, I was playing music. I pretty much put myself through college playing music. I did want to be a minister at one time when I was young, but music was always still involved. I believe that everyone; I came to the conclusion back when I wanted to be a Baptist minister, that everyone has a ministry in life. It may not be standing up on a podium preaching to people like Billy Graham was called to be an outright Evangelistic preacher and has a great career doing it and doing a great job. But others of us do better in that sense, using whatever our best talent and calling is to perform that role. I preached for a while in the Baptist church. I came to the conclusion that I would be better off and could achieve what I wanted to achieve better if I went into the musical field. So, that's just to clear that up.
Q - I know you had a co-writer with "Wildfire", but how long did it take you to write your part?
A - About three hours. I dreamed it. I was working with a guy named Larry Cansler. We were working on a project for Kenny Rogers. We'd been working for days and days and days on end with very little sleep. He finally went up to sleep. His wife had to get up at five o'clock in the morning. I went to sleep on the couch or it might've been the floor in a sleeping bag. About three o'clock in the morning, I woke up. I had this idea I started working on it. Larry's wife came downstairs and said "What are you doing up?" I said "I'm working on a song. You gotta go get Larry up." She said "OK. I'll make some coffee." So, she made some coffee and Larry came down and we finished the song. The images for the lyrics all came to me in a dream.
Q - So, you contribution to "Wildfire" was the lyrics or the music?
A - Both. I rarely start with lyrics. I start with images. And I almost always have a melody too. I usually start with a melody and some images in my head and then write the lyrics. But in this particular case I wrote all the images out on a yellow pad that I keep beside my bed. From the dream, I started to put it together in lyrical form and patched together a melody. When Larry came down, he added some more sophisticated chords to it and a really great arrangement and that became "Wildfire".
Q - How did "Wildfire" change you life?
A - Oh, it completely changed my life. I had it kickin' around a long time before I got my first recording contract. Then I made three albums before I recorded it. My producer, Bob Johnston, was just not a believer in the song. Finally by my fourth album, I said "Look, a lot of people are asking me to do this song. Let's just do it as an album cut." The big thing then was to try to come up with a hit single. Bob was convinced it was not a hit single. So he said "OK. I'll let you put it out there, but we probably won't push it." But when we played the album for the kitchen staff at Caribou Recording Studios in Colorado where we made the album, all the girls that worked in the kitchen there who served the meals to the people who were staying at Caribou, came in and listened and said "Wildfire" is the one. (laughs) Bob turned to me and said "OK, I can't go against the trend of a female audience because they're 80% of record buyers. Let's put that out as a single." It took off out of Milwaukee and Chicago. It's led to all kinds of associations with me and the horse breeding crowd and the horse shows. It was probably the reason why I was able to make a series of Cowboy songs later on because I was well known among my fellow cowboys and ranchers. I've always lived the western lifestyle throughout all the phases of my career. Always wore cowboy boots. Always had a cowboy hat. Always had a horse and tried to live out in the country as much as possible. From "Geronimo's Cadillac" until now, I've always lived in the country. I've never lived in the city. Oh, and "Wildfire" led me to get on The David Letterman Show. He was in his limousine one day and "Wildfire" came on and he said "Find the guy who does that song. We gotta get him on the show."
Q - You sit on the advisory board of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. I always thought that poetry was a lost art in America.
A - Well, the cowboys have brought it back. It isn't academic poetry that is accepted in academic circles, although it's beginning to get some credibility there. It's fun poetry. It's recited poetry. It's written to be recited. There are few free verse people. Most of us depend heavily on rhyme and meter. Most of it is humor. Some serious stuff that's coming along is written by people like Whitey Mitchell. Cowboy poetry is the basis of cowboy music. It is heavily dependent on lyrics and rhyme.
Q - It was Bob Johnstone who signed you to A&M Records?
A - That's correct. Bob Johnstone was Bob Dylan's producer. He was Leonard Cohen's producer, Simon and Garfunkel and Johnny Cash. He was a heavy in Nashville. They brought him in to do a lot of Pop stuff.
Q - John Denver recorded your songs. What kind of guy was John Denver?
A - John Denver was one of the most courageous people I've ever known. He was a daring bush pilot. He was a real adventurer and outdoorsman. He and I actually discussed the idea of making a Cowboy songs album back in the '70s, but we just never got together on it. He liked Cowboy music. He represented the outdoors and a love for the environment. Good stewardship for the environment to the world. He really and sincerely believed in it. He really sincerely did it. I didn't agree with him on everything. I'm not a big believer in the government owning huge tracts of land and taking over the country in the name of environmentalism and wilderness because I don't believe the government should own our country. (laughs) I think the private citizens of the United States of America oughta own their country. But having said that, I think there are some places that can be set aside that are particularly beautiful and nice. So, I agreed with John on some of that. I did not agree with him on other things. But we were very tight friends. We even sang songs together on my album. He brought me on The Johnny Carson Show when he was a host. He recorded early on, one of my songs that really helped me out in my career. It was called "Boy From The Country".
Q - You were an actor in this film Take This Job And Shove It?
A - No, I wasn't. That is a mistake on Wikipedia or wherever. I am an actor and I have done acting roles, but I was never in that film. There is an actor named Michael Murphy. He was in a number of films like that. He was kind of a character actor. He doesn't look anything like me. He was also in the film Nashville and he was in a lot of Woody Allen films. He was in Manhattan. But when I made my first film, which was called Hard Country in '89, the Screen Actors Guild wanted me to register. I had to register to be in the film. And they said "you can't use the name Michael Murphey. You have to use some other name." I said "Well, I've already got a career going as a singer Michael Murphey. Doesn't the spelling make a difference?" They said "No. You can't have two Clark Gables or two Marilyn Monroes or two Humphrey Bogarts, regardless of the fact they might be spelled differently, because on radio and television, advertising people don't necessarily notice that spelling. So, your name is your calling card. It's what you trade on. So we can't let people have two of the same names." So I said "how about Michael Martin Murphey?" They said "That'll work fine." So then on my records, I changed from Michael Murphey to Michael Martin Murphey and it kind of stuck after that.