David Lee, Garth, Sugarland: When Is a Comeback Not a Comeback?

Kristin Barlowe
David Lee Murphy

The swaggering lead track on David Lee Murphy's No Zip Code album, "Way Gone," finds a woman moving into a new part of her life with no concern for what lies in her rearview mirror: "She ain't comin' back," he concludes before it's all over.

It's a great tongue-in-cheek moment, alluding — intentionally or otherwise — to Murphy's current place in country music. When his Kenny Chesney collaboration "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" hit No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart dated June 23, it was the first time Murphy had occupied its top slot in more than 22 years, the second-longest gap at No. 1 in the chart's history.

It's not like Murphy retired after "Dust on the Bottle" peaked in 1995. He amassed six top 10s as an artist, then essentially stopped recording after he last charted in 2004 with Koch Records, which folded shop. Murphy toured at his own pace but really found his niche as a songwriter, earning hefty paychecks for penning such titles as Jason Aldean's "Big Green Tractor," Thompson Square's "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not" and Chesney's "Living in Fast Forward."

Like the woman in "Way Gone," Murphy wasn't comin' back to the studio in a formal way.

"People don't understand a lot of the stress, especially for new artists," he says. "To continue to produce and stay relative in the business, it's hard. I kind of hit that safe zone of writing all the time, and I was fortunate enough to have songs recorded by guys that allowed me to kind of get spoiled by staying home. I still toured in the summer — not a whole lot, just enough to keep doing it and enjoy being able to jump on a bus with my band and play."

Chesney, using his Blue Chair imprint, persuaded Murphy to make the album and landed it at Reviver, where Murphy is committed to continuing this new chapter.

It's a remarkable achievement. The career trajectory for many artists is fairly short — financial planners expect most acts will maintain their earnings peak for only three to five years — and the list of artists who've come back in a meaningful way after being out of the spotlight for an extended time is limited. Tanya Tucker endured a 10-year gap between No. 1 records from 1976-1986, a period that dovetailed with her shift from teen phenom to competitive adult (within a year of her return to prominence, she cheekily hit No. 2 with "I'll Come Back As Another Woman"). John Anderson — whose early career included "Would You Catch a Falling Star," a detailed assessment of a country singer on the wane — waited nine years after "Swingin' " hit No. 1 to return to the top in 1992 with "Straight Tequila Night." Shania Twain took 15 years between two albums of original material, 2002's Up! and 2017's Now, as she worked through a painful divorce and Lyme disease-related voice loss. And Garth Brooks had a 10-year hiatus between his 2007 No. 1 "More Than a Memory" and 2017's chart-topping "Ask Me How I Know."

Brooks, of course, famously walked away from the touring business to focus on his family, and his full-time return in 2014 was to a different world: The digital era had changed the dynamics for album sales and royalties, and the bro-country movement had altered the genre's musical texture. Not only was he being measured against younger artists who had grown up with his music, he was also fighting comparisons with his own history.

"Competing against that is tough," he told Billboard in 2014. "But [you're] also competing against what people remember the show to be — and the stories get better over time. So you've got your work cut out for you."

Perhaps the toughest obstacle is the generation gap. Murphy's voice had been absent from current material long enough that he could have been a new artist to most listeners under age 35, while other fans would have welcomed his return. That said, his prior No. 1, "Dust on the Bottle," remained in gold rotation on enough stations that it was easier for the listener to connect the dots between that guy and the singer on "Everything's Gonna Be Alright."

"Dust" "has kept me in the minds of some younger people," says Murphy. "There are certain songs that they love. They go crazy over 'She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy.' That song has been out there since the '90s. They go crazy over songs like 'I Like It, I Love It,' 'Friends in Low Places.' Those songs are still king of the ballpark."

Given that America likes to think of itself as a nation of second chances, a comeback ought to be celebrated. But some artists and/or their associates find discomfort with the idea. Fans hadn't heard new material from Sugarland in eight years until songs from its new album, Bigger, emerged. Such media as NPR, People and The Orange County Register referred to the duo's "comeback" tour or album, and even the lead single from Bigger, "Still the Same," referenced its time apart. But Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush declined to interview for this story, reasoning that because they were working on solo projects during their lengthy interim, they don't really qualify as a comeback.

Similarly, Reviver president/CEO David Ross bristled at the word "comeback" when applied to Murphy.

"It's not a comeback. It's a return," said Ross, suggesting that because Murphy had kept working during his years out of the spotlight that that changes the public's perception. "He's never gone away. He's done it for others, he's always done it for himself, [and] now we're going to show everybody what he has."

Not everyone is uncomfortable with that label. Shenandoah lead singer Marty Raybon left the band for 17 years, and now that he's back, the band is engineering a comeback on the road, where it mixes a few new songs with a load of '80s and '90s titles, including "Next to You, Next to Me," "The Church on Cumberland Road" and "Two Dozen Roses." The band admits to some early doubts about the reunion, though those faded once it started recording again.

"We went in the studio wondering if we had it together," says drummer Mike McGuire, "but once we started that first song, you hear people talk about it's like riding a bicycle — it really was."

Its first run of success — 15 top 10 hits in seven years — was a blur. This time, it's doing its best to store the memories.

"We're literally stopping and smelling the two dozen roses," quips Raybon.

Brooks is working his comeback hard. After concluding a three-year tour in December 2017, he released a new single, "All Day Long," on June 19, with another album in the works. Meanwhile, Murphy has a follow-up single slated for July as Reviver pushes to make his comeback — or return, or whatever people choose to call it — complete.

"When I did this deal, this wasn't a record that was going to be a few spins on a Nash Icon station," says Ross. "We believed 110 percent — not just in 'Everything's Gonna Be Alright.' When the No Zip Code record was made, there are songs on there that we made long-range plans to release far after 'Everything's Gonna Be Alright' went to the top."

For his part, Murphy has played stadiums on Chesney's current tour, and he's enjoying the reception he has received since his emergence from the writing room.

"I love being out on the road," he says. "I think all country singers like to play music because it makes people happy. Down deep inside, we want to see people have fun."