David Lee Murphy gets his chance

Brian Wahlert, January 1997

How to describe David Lee Murphy? Perhaps he says it best in his new single, "Genuine Rednecks"- "In a room full of real live genuine rednecks/Bonafide backwoods misfits/Goodtimin' hillbilly lunatics/With cold beer and jukebox music."

Needless to say, Murphy is not your typical urban cowboy, nor is his music your typical country pop. He sings and speaks with a weathered, rough-around-the-edges southern drawl that attests to his work-hard, party-hard past, and his songwriting confirms this attitude.

On his latest album, "Gettin' Out the Good Stuff," Murphy wrote seven songs by himself and co-wrote the other three.

"The songs aren't typical country-pop love songs," he says. "They're about different stuff."

Indeed, he writes about life in small town America, including beer-drinking and partying, Southern values, and, of course, love, albeit "with a different kind of lyrical twist. The secret to writing is to say something that people relate to, but say it in a different way."

Thus, in "She's Really Something to See," we find a man identifying with "one tail waggin' puppy" that climbs up into his lover's arms. Then there's "100 Years Too Late," which Murphy describes as "a ballad about a guy who's wonderin' if he should have been born a hundred years ago, in the 1800's instead of the 1900's."

And, of course, we have the "quirky little characters" who populate the title track, "sittin' out by the railroad track with a stolen hen, a half pint of gin, and a can of blackeyed peas."

The best song, though, is "Pirate's Cove," a mysterious-sounding, acoustic song about the good life, fishing and emptying beer cans on a little lake in southern Illinois, where Murphy grew up. "The real name is Panther Den," he explains. "It was on a lake called Devil's Kitchen." Because the lake was so swampy and full of dead trees, you could only use a 10-horsepower motor, hence the song lyric, "Got a sure ol' 10-horse Evinrude/And a 12-foot jon boat to carry the brew."

Even though camping wasn't really allowed, "I used to load up the boat and go in to party all weekend."

He seems very nostalgic for the area around his hometown, a little place called Herrin in southern Illinois, which he calls "an area without an identity," partly because "there's hardly any people there" and partly because most people associate Illinois with Chicago, whose lifestyle is about as far from where he grew up as you can get.

He grew up in a "coal-mining, rural area" with "great hunting and fishing" and a "good middle-class Southern influence" that definitely places a heavy mark on songs like "The Road You Leave Behind," whose moral is that one good deed can have a ripple effect of goodness.

What's so refreshing about Murphy is that he's so real. He had the most-played country single of 1995, "Party Crowd," a number-one follow-up hit in "Dust on the Bottle," and a debut album, "Out With a Bang," that is approaching platinum, yet he seems happier to talk about fishing and camping than talking up his album or single.

Perhaps his nonchalance toward his recent success is due to the fact that he's spent so long paying his dues that he can't forget his days as a struggling songwriter and performer.

As far back as Murphy remembers, "I've always wanted to be a singer," he says. "I've spent a lot of time working at it."

He says outlaw country and Southern rock have shaped him as an artist. "Waylon and Willie, those guys were big influences. Willie's so laid-back and cool. He just acts like he doesn't give a rip about anything."

He also points to Texas songwriters Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker and Townes Van Zandt and even Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles as influences.

Songwriting was just a natural extension of his desire to play and sing. "I started writin' songs because I couldn't play a lot. I'd learn how to make a chord and then write a song around it."

When he had his first band, though, he had to play covers. "Back in those days you gotta play what the people want. We played little country bars, wherever we could get a gig. We played Waylon, Willie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top. We'd get a little rowdier as the night went on."

He started coming to Nashville back in 1979, but it was six long years before he got his first break: a track on a Reba McEntire album called "Red Roses Won't Work Now." After that came what he affectionately refers to as his "macaroni-and-cheese-and-bologna years," the five years before Doug Stone cut "High Weeds and Rust" in 1990.

Why did he stick with it so long? Wouldn't most artists have given up and gotten a real job? "I liked what I was doin'," he says. "I wasn't makin' any money, but I was happy. I didn't have a boss breathin' down my neck."

Part of the problem was that country music wasn't right for Murphy at the time. "Country music goes in cycles," Murphy says. "It gets real poppy, and then it gets real traditional. In the early eighties, my sound was probably too edgy for country music. It came back around to where someone believed enough in what I was doin' to give me a deal."

Those lean years gave Murphy "the opportunity to learn to make records" so that when he finally did get a record deal with MCA he had a lot of creative control. Many new singers don't have a well-defined artistic identity, and as a result they get bossed around by their producers and label executives, at least for their first few albums. Right from the start, however, "Tony Brown had the confidence to give me a real long rope," Murphy says. "It's a luxury when he says bring me 10 songs," instead of specifying which songs to cut.

Thus, when you listen to a David Lee Murphy album, what you hear is the real deal. He's not some record-company's creation, or an attempt to mimic Garth Brooks or Tim McGraw. He's just performing his own brand of country music, the way he always has.

He's been touring with the Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year Brooks & Dunn since January and says they've been "good people to work with." In fact, as he talks on the phone from a venue in Florida, Kix Brooks has just been in, "goofin' around," even though in just a few hours 12,000 fans will be in the audience for the night's show. Quite a change for a guy who was playing bars and couldn't get his songs cut just a few years ago.

He's taking full advantage of being on such a high-profile tour, though. "Our show is wide-open from start to finish." Except for "100 Years Too Late" and his most recent number-one hit "The Road You Leave Behind," he performs his 40-minute set with "the pedal to the metal."

Like Brooks & Dunn, Murphy is an avid racing fan. Although he doesn't drive his own car, like Brooks & Dunn, he loves to watch NASCAR and even sponsored a car last year. "We started out at Daytona sponsorin' Joe Rutman. We actually went out with a bang," he says with a laugh. Since his car failed to qualify, Rutman suggested that they talk to Jeff Purvis, who needed a sponsor.

"We worked out a deal and sponsored Jeff and stuck with it for the whole year," Murphy says. "We had a good time and are looking forward to doing it again. It's just a big hobby."

Murphy is also looking forward to writing after coming off the road in November. He's "got a bunch of material ready to go for the new album," but he'd like to have a few more songs to choose from. He doesn't offer many hints about what will be on the new album, to be released in late 1997, except to say that it won't be a serious departure from what he's done in the past.

Thus, Murphy's been giving his fans what they want for the past two years now, and he shows no sign of changing. "I'm just an artist," he says. "I just write songs and sing them. It's not an act." No, Murphy is definitely not an act. He's genuine, genuine redneck!"

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com