Michael Martin Murphey had his first hit song in the 1960s, when The Monkees took his “What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ Round” to the top of the pop charts. The singer-songwriter had hits in the 1970s with “Wildfire” and “Carolina in the Pines.” He then crossed over to the country charts and had more than a dozen Top 40 singles and albums there in the 1980s. For the past 20 years, he has recorded mostly cowboy and bluegrass music, to both critical and popular acclaim. His 1990 album Cowboy Songs sold a million copies, and his 2009 album Buckaroo Blue Grass got a Grammy nomination.
At age 68, Murphey still performs more than 100 shows a year, often with his son Ryan, a first-rate guitar player and the producer of Murphey’s latest albums, including Red River Drifter, which came out this August and jumped onto the Billboard bluegrass chart.
You started performing about 65 years ago. I went to church from a young age and was blessed with a congregation that would let a 3-year-old stand up on a podium and sing “Zacchaeus was a wee little man.” That 3-year-old got applause and joy out of that. That experience left a man-sized bootprint on my brain that never left me: I was going to be a musician and an artist. That realization happened to me at church. Churches should work harder to encourage artists like I was inspired when I was 3 years old.
Tell us about your personal spiritual journey. The most important moments in my life were when my parents gave me a sense of studying the Bible, reading the Bible, and understanding the Bible. I was about 6 years old when I walked down the aisle and gave my life to Christ. I felt a palpable sense of change in who I was even as a child.
The church was an early influence on your music, too. I grew up in Texas and my earliest influences were gospel music. You know, the lady with the stacked, sprayed hair playing the Baptist piano. I grew up with that kind of gospel music, which had a piano player and an organist, and Stamps-Baxter kind of Southern gospel music. That’s what I heard when I was a kid. I also listened to a lot of honky-tonk music. We basically listened to the honky-tonks and the angels.
Have you been following Christ your entire life? I’ve gone through all the questioning, all the dark moments of disbelief, all the cynicism that you can imagine. When I was in college, I encountered a lot of people who tried to tear down the Christian faith and make fun of anybody who’s involved in it, but I was also introduced to the work of C.S. Lewis and of Tolkien and other Christian writers. I thank the Lord for C.S. Lewis. I was a young intellectual who was questioning whether or not I should be a Christian and he gave me encouragement.
You were one of the originators of the outlaw country movement in Austin, with its country-rock feel, back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. How did you get from there to the bluegrass and cowboy music you play today? My main focus in life has pretty much always been songwriting. I was in Austin, Texas, in 1972 and released Geronimo’s Cadillac. That’s around the same time Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Waylon Jennings moved to town or were hanging around town. The whole Austin music thing just took off like a rocket. But I went to Colorado when the carpetbaggers started showing up, and I lived on top of a mountain and just did my own thing. I’ve always been a rancher by nature, so I have a ranch.
That led you into cowboy music? In 1989 I started making cowboy music because that’s who I am. That’s what I do. Put me on a horse in the Rocky Mountains or somewhere riding across an open prairie in the Midwest, and I’m a happy camper. So I write music about that.
Roy Rogers, one of the movies’ singing cowboys, had a big influence on you. When I started singing cowboy music, he was still alive. So I went out to California and asked him for advice. He gave me two pieces of advice. First, he said, “If you’re going to be a singing cowboy, never lead a child down the wrong trail in life. Sing about positive things that encourage kids to do good things.”
That’s not too different from Jesus’ admonition not to do anything to lead children astray. It sounds simple, even simplistic, but try it sometime. Try waking up in the morning and saying, “Today I won’t do anything that would influence a kid the wrong way.”
What was the other piece of advice? Get yourself a good-looking horse. Because when you get old and ugly, the kids will still come to see the horse.
What turned you toward bluegrass? I sat down and did some research and found over 100 bands had recorded my songs, and it surprised me to discover that lots of them were straight bluegrass bands. I said, maybe that’s a good idea. I had already done a bunch of cowboy songs by then, so we called the first bluegrass album Buckaroo Blue Grass. It was a cowboy’s take on bluegrass music.
And that album got a Grammy nomination. I got my first Grammy nomination for that album. I had gone through all the fanciest producers you can name. But none of them got me a Grammy nomination until my son Ryan made Buckaroo Blue Grass. I’m pretty proud of that, and proud of him for that.
What is it about the cowboy music you’re doing now that captures people’s imaginations? It’s the simple, direct honesty of it that cuts through the intellectualizing of life. It’s like it says in my song “Cowboy Logic”: “If it’s a job, do it. Put your back into it, ’cause a little bit of dirt’s going to wash off in the rain. If it’s a horse, ride it. If it hurts, hide it. Dust yourself off and get back on again.” We need to hear that today. Sometimes you need to get rid of the Dr. Phil tapes and the Oprah stuff and just get back to work.
What do you think of the entertainment culture generally? Increasingly toxic. It tears down society, like we saw with the recent Miley Cyrus situation, which didn’t surprise me at all. Though I don’t want to denigrate Miss Cyrus in any way as a human being. She’s simply susceptible to the things that we’re all susceptible to.