Saturday, April 4, 2009

Is The Stable Door Shut?

The animal kingdom has made a surprisingly significant contribution to the fabric of popular music history. Some of the best known groups/artists of the past half century have taken nomenclatural inspiration from other species. From 50s sensations like Buddy Holly’s Crickets, and The Flamingos, through sixties groups like The Turtles, The Byrds, and The Monkees. The 70s offered up Three Dog Night, Eagles, Boomtown Rats, Cheetah, and the Ferrets, whilst we were bowled over in the 80s by Adam & The Ants, Ratcat, the Blow Monkeys, Sly Fox, Goanna (see previous posts), and more recent years have delivered the likes of Spiderbait, Atomic Kitten, and Alien Ant Farm. Likewise, living creatures, of the non-human variety, have often featured in song titles; ‘Hound Dog’ by Elvis Presley, ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ by Survivor, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ by Robert John (see previous post), ‘Barracuda’ by Heart, ‘Nashville Cats’ by Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘Crazy Horses’ by The Osmonds, ‘The Night Owls’ by Little River Band, ‘Monkey’ by George Michael, ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ by Duran Duran, to name but a few. On occasion title and artist have delivered a double whammy of creature comfort, as in Adam & The Ants’ ‘Dog Eat Dog’, and the paradox of Cat Stevens’ ‘I Love My Dog’.

Now I realise that several of the examples cited above are stretching the limits of word association, in terms of being representatives from the ‘animal kingdom’, but I didn’t feel that it was fair to exclude insects, birds, or sea creatures from all the nature loving fun. In terms of being the lyrical inspiration for a popular music hit, animals are a less common thematic element, but still crop up from time to time. Michael Jackson sang about his love for a rat called ‘Ben’, Paul McCartney eloquently expressed affection for his sheep dog in The Beatles’ ‘Martha My Dear’ (and did likewise for a pet Labrador called ‘Jet’ in the Wings song of the same name), Rick Dees unleashed the ‘Disco Duck’ upon the world, The Used lamented over their singer’s pet dog on ‘All That I’ve Got’, Was (Not Was) took us out to ‘Walk The Dinosaur’, Bruce Cockburn was ‘Wondering Where The Lions Are’, Warren Zevon sent chills up our spine with his horrifying ‘Werewolves Of London’ (pushing the limits of the concept a bit there), and in 1975 Michael Murphey recounted the tale of a pony called ‘Wildfire’.

Michael Murphey was born in Dallas, Texas, and as a child developed a fascination with traditional American literature, and in particular the history and mythology surrounding cowboys (something that would inform much of his later work as a songwriter), born in part from childhood days spent at his grandfather’s ranch. In his adolescent years Murphey studied both medieval history (at North Texas State University), and creative writing (at U.C.L.A.), but from his teen years on, his first love had been music. His first instrument of choice (as a child) had been the ukulele, but he quickly recognised the guitar as a more commercially viable vehicle through which to express his love for popular music, and in particular country/folk legends like Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, and Woody Guthrie. Whilst still in junior high. Murphey had begun performing as an amateur, in and around Dallas, honing his playing skills on a range of styles, from country, through folk, to contemporary rock. During his college years, the young singer/songwriter continued to develop his craft, and after arriving in California, Murphey was signed with a small music publisher called Sparrow Music. By 1964 he had formed ranks with three other young musicians, John Raines, John London, and one Michael Nesmith (see Sep 08 post), to form an outfit called the Trinity River Boys. Before disbanding, the quartet reportedly recorded an album of folk spliced with country-rock, which never saw the light of day.

By 1967, Michael Murphey had combined creative talents with Owen Castleman to form the Lewis & Clarke Expedition (Murphey assuming the alias of Travis Lewis, and Castleman, Boomer Clarke). The duo recorded a solitary self-titled album on the Colgems label, which just happened to be the label stable of the Monkees, of whom Michael Nesmith had become a member. The Lewis & Clarke Expedition scored a minor hit during the second half of 1967, with the song ‘I Feel Good (I Feel Bad)’ (US#64), before disappearing in some mountain range somewhere. In truth, it was only Murphey who found himself in the mountains, the San Gabriel Mountains to be precise, where he spent a large part of 1968, fine tuning his song writing. Just prior to departing Los Angeles, Murphey’s stocks as a songwriter had received a considerable boost, when pop sensation the Monkees had recorded his country-rock song ‘What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round?’, sung by Nesmith, and included on the late ‘67 release ‘Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.’ (thought it wasn’t the first Murphey penned track the quartet had recorded). The song introduced a whole new dynamic to the Monkees’ sound, and it was no coincidence that Michael Nesmith, who shared a like passion with Murphey, for traditional country and folk, went on himself to push the progressive-country boundaries post Monkees.

Soon after, Murphey was signed to the prestigious Screen-Gems Music (the publishing arm of Columbia Pictures, and owner of Colgems), where he was employed as a fulltime staff writer (read chained to a guitar, sweat shop style). Actually, although the pressures on staff songwriters were intense, it no doubt inspired many to produce some of their best work, which is precisely what Murphey achieved. During his five year tenure with Screen-Gems, over the late 60s/early 70s, Murphey’s songs were recorded by the likes of Flatt & Scrugs, Bobbie Gentry, and Kenny Rogers. In 1972, Rogers recorded an entire album of Michael Murphey penned songs, titled ‘The Ballad Of Calico’, which told of a Mojave Desert ghost town. But like most professional songwriters, Murphey grew disillusioned with the relative pittance offered by way of financial remuneration, and had designs on recording his own music.

Producer Bob Johnston saw a ready made country rock artist, and in 1971 signed Murphey to a deal with A&M Records. By this time, Murphey had returned to his native Texas, and fell in with the Austin song writing community, which featured the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, and B.W. Stevenson (collectively known as the ‘Outlaw Country’ movement). He put together a new backing band, and began performing a mix of country-rock and folk-rock at local venues. In 1972, Murphey released his debut solo album, ‘Geronimo’s Cadillac’, which yielded the US#37/OZ#96 title track hit. The song was later covered by several high profile artists, including Hoyt Axton, Claire Hamill, and Cher. The album featured an agreeable blend of easy listening country-rock, imbued with heartfelt lyrics, a tinge of gospel, and simple but endearing arrangements, and was a moderate success, particularly in Australia (US#160/OZ#38). Murphey’s sophomore album, 1973’s ‘Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir’ (US#196), further illustrated his penchant for introspective lyrics, and served to reinforce his burgeoning reputation as one of the leaders of the ‘progressive country’ music scene. It also led to his early career nickname of the ‘Cosmic Cowboy’.

Murphey then left A&M to take up residency at the Epic label stable. 1974’s self titled album was a relatively low key affair, but its 1975 follow up would break Murphey on the mainstream pop charts, and deliver one of the most memorable country-rock tracks of the mid 70s. On one of many childhood stays at his grandfather’s ranch, Murphey had been told the story of a ghost horse that rescued people from the desert. Many years later (1968 to be precise), he had a dream along similar lines, and felt inspired to write a song around the story, reportedly penning ‘Wildfire’ in just half an hour (with co-writer Larry Cansler). The hauntingly heartfelt song galloped onto the U.S. charts in March of ‘75, busted down the top ten stall, and bolted to #3 on the Hot 100 by June (#1 Adult Contemporary/OZ#22). The gold certified single, featuring harmonies from a couple of members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, helped bolster sales of Murphey’s album ‘Blue Sky - Night Thunder’ (US#18/OZ#97), and was followed up by the single ‘Carolina In The Pines’ (US#21).

Murphey’s 1976 album ‘Swans Against The Sun’ (US#44), further consolidated the singer/songwriter’s new found status as a cross-over country/pop star. The single ‘Renegade’ (US#39) delivered Murphey’s third consecutive mainstream top forty hit, and the playing roster on the album included country luminaries such as Willie Nelson, John Denver, and Charlie Daniels. Whilst over the next few years, mainstream chart action eluded Murphey, he built a strong following on the country music scene, with hits such as ‘Flowing Free Forever’, ‘A Mansion On The Hill’, and ‘Cherokee Fiddle’. The latter was featured in the 1980 film ‘Urban Cowboy’, and around that time Murphey dabbled with the acting caper, appearing in the films ‘Take This Job And Shove It’, and ‘Hard Country’ (for which he co-wrote the screenplay). After getting the acting bug out of his system, Murphey returned to music, under his newly expanded moniker of Michael Martin Murphey (apparently to differentiate him from an actor of the same name).

In 1982, Murphey scored the last of his cross-over hits, with the US#19 ballad ‘What’s Forever For’ (OZ#36), which hit #1 on the country charts. Whilst the mainstream hits dried up, Murphey enjoyed a steady flow of country hits, both singles and albums, over the next decade. Highlights included 1983’s ‘Still Taking Chances’ (U.S. Country #3), ‘Will It Be Love By Morning’ (1984-U.S. Country #7), his 1987 duet with Holly Dunn ‘A Face In The Crowd’ (U.S. Country #4), and ‘Never Givin’ Up On Love’ (1989-U.S. Country #9), the latter featured in the Clint Eastwood film ‘Pink Cadillac’. Murphey then turned his attentions to reviving the almost lost, but not forgotten, genre of ‘cowboy’ music. 1990’s ‘Cowboy Songs’ revived a number of traditional tracks from the genre, and brought Murphey a whole new audience, keen to immerse themselves in the likes of ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’. Such was the demand for Murphey’s new venture, that his label Warner Music, established a new subsidiary label, Warner Western, that became the new label stable for Murphey, and like artists (many of whom Murphey produced). Over the ensuing eighteen years, Michael Martin Murphey has recorded a further dozen albums, and has become a leading figure in the genre of traditional cowboy music, receiving a string of major awards, including becoming an inductee into the Western Music Hall of Fame. His most recent album is 2009’s ‘Buckaroo Blue Grass’, the 28th album by one of America’s most enduring singer/songwriters.

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