Few artists have had a more multifaceted career than Michael Martin Murphey. Known for his enduring ’70s pop hit “Wildfire,” a successful run on the country charts in the ’80s and most recently keeping western music alive on his seven Cowboy Songs albums, the singer/songwriter has covered a lot of musical territory. On his new project, Austinology: Alleys of Austin, Murphey returns to his Texas roots and is joined by Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison, Jerry Jeff Walker and others who made Austin a respected music mecca.
Murphey will be showcasing the album Thursday night (Oct. 18) during a sold out concert at Tennessee’s Franklin Theatre, which will be live streamed on Facebook, countryroadtv.com and YouTube. Amy Grant, the Last Bandoleros and other special guests are slated to join Murphey.
Grant duets with the veteran troubadour on “Wildfire,” which hit No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1975 and No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Though some in his camp suggested Murphey limit guests on Austinology exclusively to Texas artists, he made an exception for Grant. “I really believed that Amy Grant was the person to do ‘Wildfire,'” Murphey tells Billboard. “Years and years ago we were on an awards show and she took me aside and said, ‘I’m a big fan of “Wildfire.” I just love that song.’ I never forgot that. Amy and I stayed friends over the years, and I felt she was the one that would come in and add the most to it. I’ve always wanted to do it as a female/male duet. I’d thought about her singing on that song for years. I was so delighted that she took it on and is going to make appearances singing it with me whenever she can.”
Murphey says the idea to record Austinology came after he was asked to take part in a documentary about the Austin music scene. He admits he was initially hesitant. “I’ve committed myself to cowboy music since 1989. I’ve done seven Cowboy Songs albums and it’s gone great. It’s created a base of people that I can rely on, similar to what the country music audience was back in the day,” says Murphey, who was a mainstay on country radio in the ’80s with such hits as “What’s Forever For,” “Long Line of Love,” “Still Taking Chances,” “Will it Be Love by Morning” and “Don’t Count the Rainy Days” before turning his attention to traditional western music. “I was contacted by a guy name Eric Geadleman who said, ‘I’ve been hired by the Country Music Hall of Fame to make a film about the Austin days and the origins of the Austin music scene and they want you to be a part of that.’ At first I said, ‘Well I’ve moved on to cowboy music, I really don’t want to go back and go over that again.'”
After careful consideration, Murphey relented because he wanted to see Texas get the credit it deserves for producing a unique style of country music. The first part of Geadleman’s six part series is currently being played at the Country Music Hall of Fame as part of the Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s exhibit, which opened in May and runs through Feb. 14, 2021.
A Dallas native, Murphey attended the University of North Texas before moving to L.A. and studying creative writing at UCLA. He began seeing success as a singer and songwriter on the West Coast, but felt the pull back to Texas and settled in Austin in 1968. For the new album, he wanted to concentrate on songs that came out between 1968 and 1974, the years he was living in Austin. “I wanted to make an album that’s not just about my music, but is about these other songwriters who defined that style of songwriting that came out of Austin, Texas at that time and really made the Texas music scene what it was,” he says. “It was a much more cowboy, much more western, much more balladeer than the kind of songwriting you were seeing in Nashville. Nothing I’m saying here is to cast any aspersions on the great stuff that was done by songwriters in Nashville. Some of the greatest music ever was made by guys like Harlan Howard, so I’m not talking about better. I’m talking about different. There was a strong, strong need somehow to make it more poetic.”
Murphey says those years in Austin were marked by a sense of community that he compares to Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Janet Flanner and other authors who bonded in Paris in the 1920s. “Hemingway was at the center of that scene and the style of writing that they developed,” he says. “They had to go somewhere else besides New York… They had to get out of there to develop a different kind of an American voice. In their case they had to leave America. In our case, we just had to leave L.A. and Nashville.”
That renegade creative spirit is celebrated on Austinology, which Murphey co-produced with Chris Harris. The opening track, “Alleys of Austin,” features guest vocalists Lovett, Willis, Robison, Rogers, Nelson and Gary P. Nunn. “Cosmic Cowboy” also features an all-star cast, including Nelson, Walker, Lovett, Robison, Nunn, Django Walker and Bob Livingston.
Austinology also includes Randy Rogers joining Murphey on “Backsliders Wine,” The Last Bandoleros on “LA Freeway,” Kelly Willis on the Jerry Jeff Walker-penned “Little Bird” and Lyle Lovett on “Drunken Lady of the Morning.”
“Lyle Lovett has been on my case to do another version of that for years and years,” Murphey says. “Lyle said he’d come in and sing on the album, but he wanted me to do ‘Drunken Lady.’ He didn’t mind what other songs we did, but he wanted that one for sure. I called my son Ryan and said, ‘I don’t remember how I tuned my guitar.’ It’s a weird tuning that I did and he said, ‘No problem dad. I’ll come in and play it,’ so he actually played the guitar exactly the same way I played it on the Cosmic Cowboy album in 1973. Ryan has worked on every album I’ve made since 1998. He had a tremendous amount of influence on this record. He did an awful lot of hard work.”
Steve Earle joins Murphey on his 1972 hit “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” in what was a full circle moment for the veteran artist. Murphey had been discovered singing in a Dallas club by legendary producer Bob Johnston, whose credits include Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, and Simon & Garfunkel. “He’s the one who signed me in the pop division [of A&M]. I was not signed in the country division even though he lived in Nashville,” Murphey recalls. “He offered me a record deal that night. I said, ‘When is this deal going to start?’ He said, ‘Well when do you want to do it?’ and I said, ‘As soon as possible.'”
Murphey meant it. He borrowed his dad’s car, invited another songwriter friend and his bass player and they drove all night, calling Johnston the next morning to tell him they were in town and ready to start. “I had been in the L.A. music scene, which is a cutthroat competition and if you get a break, you better take it right now. You better pursue it with all your might,” Murphey explains of his pouncing on the Nashville opportunity in 1970. “Bob [booked] Columbia Studio, which was a huge room and said ‘All I want you guys to do is lay down your songs with a guitar.’ I said, ‘I’ve got my bass player with me. We can add some bass,’ and he said, ‘Okay, we’ll put him on a separate track. I just need these demos.’ I went in and I laid down 40 songs back to back without stopping. I was so exhausted when I quit I could barely walk. My back hurt. I got a sore throat. It just about killed me, but I got them all down.”
When Murphey asked Johnston when they would record the actual album, he got a response that surprised him. “He said, ‘Michael, I think you just made the record. These tracks are good enough to put it out just like they are,'” Murphey recalls.
Those sessions became Murphey’s debut album Geronimo’s Cadillac. “Fast forward over 40 years later,” he smiles. “Earlier this year, I walked into Columbia Studio A and laid down ‘Geronimo’s Cadillac’ with Steve Earle. It was like The Twilight Zone. I hadn’t been in there since I made the [debut] album.”
Co-written with Gary P. Nunn, Murphey cites “South Canadian River Song” as the “best composition that I’ve ever done,” and says it reveals a lot about his life. “The Canadian River is 800 miles long,” he says. “It’s not the biggest river. It’s a long and ambling river. Sometimes it gets almost dry. Sometimes it floods. The South Canadian River is like my life and my career. It rambles. It’s not a straight path. There’s a lot of curves and turns in the river. You can’t see around the bend. I took it as kind of a metaphor of my life back then and it still is. That’s the way my career has been. There’s a lot of twists and turns over the nearly 50 albums I’ve been on. My life has been a good river, a significant river, but it’s not the Missouri and it’s not the Mississippi or the Colorado. I’ve always been a regionalist in the way I think about it, I’m a lot like Hemingway in that I write about my own backyard.”
Many people credit Murphey and his compadres with launching what has become the Americana genre. “What made a difference is that’s what we set out to do,” he says. “On the international scene in the ’60s and ’70s, the influence of the Rolling Stones, Beatles and Bee Gees was so strong, but at the heart of it they had this deep respect for American music, so we went for it. We were intentionally trying to write stuff that sounded really American, songs that people from England could not have written. Every song on here is arguably a song that could not have been written by anybody else, but an American. I remember using the word Americana back then, and I remember saying, ‘I want to be a regionalist who tries to universalize the experiences of his own backyard’ because my favorite writers are those kinds of writers, like Mark Twain. Nobody from another country could have written what Mark Twain wrote. The American experience is probably one of the greatest epic stories in the history of the world — the formation of this country, what we’ve been through, all the different races and ethnicities and influences…. The experience of trying to integrate all these ethnicities into one basic idea of freedom, democracy, freedom of expression, freedom of religion. It’s a perfect environment for artists.”