Michael Martin Murphey performed his first songs in church.
“I went to church from a young age and was blessed with a congregation that would let a three-year-old stand up on a podium and sing ‘Zacchaeus was a wee little man,’” he said. “That three-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.”
From those early days singing in church, Murphey went on to perform on some of the great stages of the world. In the process, he pioneered a new form of music: Americana, a genre-fusing blend of folk, country, gospel, jazz, and blues that has in the past decade taken its rightful place in the American Songbook.
Although Murphey is more closely associated with pop, country, and cowboy music than Christian music, he says he made a profession of faith in Christ at age 6 in that little Baptist church in Texas, and his musical sensibilities were formed by the old hymns of the Christian faith, and by the musical structures and harmonies of the songs he first sang in church as a child. “If you don’t understand my Christian faith, you don’t really understand my music,” he said.
Murphey broke into the music business in the 1960s by writing hits for the Monkees (“What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ Round?”), Kenny Rogers, Jerry Jeff Walker, Flatt & Scruggs, and John Denver (“Boy From The Country,” a song about St. Francis of Assissi). But he quickly made a mark singing his own songs. His album “Geronimo’s Cadillac” is considered a classic of the “outlaw country” or “cosmic cowboy” genre, and one of the defining works of the Austin music scene. But even that album had two songs that explored gospel themes, “Lights of the City” and “Backslider’s Wine.” (Jerry Jeff Walker covered “Backslider’s Wine” on another album that defined the Austin music scene, 1973’s live album “Viva Terlingua.”)
Indeed, “Backslider’s Wine” tells the story of a young man who was not following the faith of his youth. (“My momma sings out in my memory…do not drink backslider’s wine.”) There’s more than a bit of autobiography in that song. Murphey will be the first to admit that the six-year-old who walked the aisle in a Texas church did not always take a straight path. He credits the books of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as Christian apologist Lee Strobel (The Case for Christ) with helping him develop a more mature understanding of the faith.
As his faith grew, his distaste for what he calls the “raunchiness” of pop and country music grew, too. There was a period, he said, when “just about every country song was about divorce, depression, or drunkenness.” Murphey’s 80s-era country hits “What’s Forever For?” and “Long Line of Love” celebrated family and faith. Then, in 1989, he told his label, Warner Brothers, he wanted to make an album of cowboy music. Murphey says cowboy music often has an “innocence” that the music industry had left behind. It celebrates “hard, honest work and the values that made this country great.”
The label was not thrilled, but it eventually gave in and released “Cowboy Songs” in 1990. It sold a 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, one of which – “Buckaroo Bluegrass” – received a Grammy nomination.
When Murphey returned to cowboy music, he says Roy Rogers, a movie star and “singing cowboy” as well as an evangelical Christian, was an influence.
“Roy Rogers was still alive then,” Murphey said. “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 Roy Rogers’ other piece of advice? “Get yourself a good-looking horse,” Murphey said with a laugh in his voice. “Because when you get old and ugly, the kids will still come to see the horse.”
Murphey still keeps and rides horses, though it’s been a very long time since he has had to worry about people coming to see him. He still plays more than 100 shows a year, often to sold-out venues – such as his sold-out show last night at the Franklin Theatre, just outside of Nashville, where he was joined on-stage by Amy Grant for a duet of his classic song “Wildfire.” Tonight, he’ll play the Grand Ole Opry.
His latest album, Austinology: Alleys of Austin, celebrates the Austin music scene he helped start in the late 1960s. Guest artists on this album include – in addition to Amy Grant – Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Jerry Jeff Walker, Randy Rogers, and The Last Bandoleros.
“This album is not just about my songs,” Murphey said. “It’s about what makes a great song, a song that stand the test of time, a song that has a shot of living on in the Great American Songbook tradition.”
He also says that while the songs are not explicitly Gospel or Christian, they are attempts to tell the truth about the world, and to provide glimpses of grace and freedom. “Wildfire came to me in a dream,” Murphey said. “So even I don’t know for sure what it’s about, but I have come to believe that it is about freedom. And I would add that in Revelation we learn that Jesus returns on a white horse. I believe all of that was floating around in my mind when woke up in the middle of the night and wrote that song.”
Through all the chart-jumping and genre-busting, Murphey has remained constant to an honest, sophisticated approach to his songwriting, all built on a musical foundation he learned in church as a child. And though he has strong opinions about the low state of much of today’s pop and country music, he – more than most artists of his era — has followed Michelangelo’s advice to “criticize by creating something beautiful.”
This article is one in a series based on the ideas in the book Restoring All Things: God’s Audacious Plan To Change The World Through Everyday People by Warren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet. To see all the articles in this series, click here. If you know of an individual or ministry that might make a good “Restoring All Things” profile, please email firstname.lastname@example.org