Culture > Music
Ross Andreson/Elko Daily Free Press/AP

Still hangin' round

Music | Michael Martin Murphey is going strong nearly 50 years on

Issue: "Ghost streets," Feb. 27, 2010

Beyoncé Knowles and Taylor Swift stole the headlines at the Grammy Awards on Jan. 31, with 18 nominations and eight wins between them.

But one of the most interesting stories Grammy night didn't make headlines. In fact, it came so far down the list that it didn't even make the main telecast. It was the battle for best bluegrass album. It was eventually won by comedian and actor Steve Martin-who has now won as many Grammys for his music-two-as for his '70s- and '80s-era comedy albums.

His main competition for the award was a man who made his first appearance on the national stage a decade earlier. In the 1960s, before there was much of an Austin music scene, a young songwriter named Michael Murphey was playing the bars there, sometimes sharing the stage with fellow Texan Michael Nesmith. A few years later, when Nesmith became part of the pop phenomenon The Monkees, he remembered Murphey's songs, and one of them, "What Am I Doin' Hangin' Round?" became one of the Monkees' biggest hits.

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In the '70s Murphey had a string of hits of his own including "Wildfire," which went to No. 1 in the United States. In the '80s, he remade his career again, putting 10 songs on the country music charts-and scoring Grammy nominations as well as the Association of Country Music's "Best New Artist" award as Michael Martin Murphey-not bad for a guy who was then approaching 40 and had been in the music business for almost 20 years.

Murphey has been a Christian since his youth, though he admits he "made a few wrong turns" along the way. As his faith grew, his distaste for what he calls the "raunchiness" of pop and country music grew, too. So in 1989, he told his label, Warner Brothers, that he wanted to make an album of cowboy music, which Murphey says has an "innocence" that the music industry had left behind and which celebrates "hard, honest work and the values that made this country great."

The label was not thrilled, but the company eventually gave in and released Cowboy Songs in 1990. It sold 1 million copies and established Murphey as a major force in the development of Americana music. He's since released at least five other albums of cowboy music.

Now, Murphey rides again. The same exploration of roots music that led him to cowboy songs also led him back to bluegrass. His 2009 album Buckaroo Bluegrass-the one that gave Steve Martin a run for the Grammy-contains a re-imagining of "Wildfire," "Carolina in the Pines," and other Murphey standards (plus two new songs).

Murphey will turn 65 this year, and he has maintained a steady presence in the music business for nearly a half-century, still doing more than 100 performances a year. Nonetheless, he told me he was "overwhelmed, very surprised" when he received the nomination. Murphey gives most of the credit to his son Ryan, who produced Buckaroo Bluegrass. "This album was his design," Murphey said. "He's been producing my albums, and music for others, since 1998, so there are lots of people who know how good he is, but this really validates how good a producer he really is."

Murphey has been writing songs with Christian themes for at least the past decade, and his label, Rural Rhythm, has a Christian division. So will the world see a Christian album from Murphey? Probably, Murphey said, but not before Buckaroo Bluegrass II hits the streets later this year.

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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