C&I talks with singer-songwriter Michael Martin Murphey about his upcoming album Austinology.
Cowboys & Indians: You’re currently working on Austinology, an album dedicated to the songs that defined the Outlaw Country movement of the 1970s. What inspired you to launch this project?
Michael Martin Murphey: I’ve always been a forward-march guy. Like, OK, what’s the next thing? I’ve never looked back. Obviously, over the years, I would throw some of my songs from the Austin, Texas, years into my shows. But it wasn’t until I was approached by the guy who made the film that’s going to run with the Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit [at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville] that I really started thinking again about that era. After I did the interview for that film, I thought, Wow, I should do more of that material. At first, I thought, Maybe I should write an autobiography or something. But then I decided, No, the best approach is to just go back and do the music that was around me at that time. My own music and the music that was around me.
C&I: You were among the trailblazers of that time, moving to Austin to make music that wasn’t always embraced by Nashville. What was the appeal of the city at that time?
Michael: Well, there was something special in the air, because Austin was such an appealing place to live. The university tower was the only high-rise. It was a tree-covered, laid-back city, but it was also the capital of Texas, so it had some culture. It had the university there. There was Barton Springs and Zilker Park and Dripping Springs — all these different places to go out and enjoy nature.
C&I: What was the music scene like?
Michael: There were a few music venues there, enough music venues that you could play once in a while. It wasn’t a situation where you could depend on making a living just playing in Austin. You had to go around Texas and around the Southwest. But what was really remarkable is that a whole bunch of people decided to follow me there without me making a phone call and saying, “Hey, you guys really ought to come live down here in Austin.” I mean, we were all playing at the Checkered Flag, and we were playing the Kerrville Folk Festival, places like that. We were hipsters of that era, really hippies of that era, who were playing country music that was not well-received in Nashville. A lot of people just picked up and moved there within a few years of each other. That was remarkable. I’ve actually really never lived in a place like it since.
C&I: You had already enjoyed some success in California as a songwriter before you moved to Austin. But you obviously enjoyed the music scene in Austin a lot more.
Michael: I moved there in, oh, late 1969, early ’70. And it’s funny — I never met Willie Nelson until he moved there later. Like I say, there was just something in the air. Willie was not playing the same clubs we were. But when he saw that people like me and Jerry Jeff Walker and Rusty Wier and B.W. Stevenson were all playing down there and having a nice lifestyle — it was laid-back, not as cutthroat and competitive as the other music cities, and you weren’t being rejected for playing an acoustic guitar or writing a song that sounded a little bit country — he showed up. And at approximately the same time, all these incredible songwriters and musicians that had a progressive country bent moved to Austin. I give a lot of credit to Rod Kennedy, who started the Kerrville Folk Festival, because he had brought in a lot of those people for the festival for years.
C&I: So what can we expect to hear on Austinology?
Michael: Well, I had a lot of fun with this record. I’ve more or less limited the parameters to the years from 1968 to 1974, because there was so much great music made during that time. And it’s not just my songs. I did Jerry Jeff Walker songs, and I did songs by Willie and Waylon. But I tried to stick with songs that came out when I was there because I knew what the impact was on the culture. [Laughs.] Because I was there, you know? Of course, the hardest thing was picking the songs. I think there’s going to be probably between 13 and 15 songs on the album. But we had a lot of leftovers. So there will definitely be an Austinology 2.
EXHIBITION: Michael Martin Murphey is among the many artists represented in Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s, an exhibit celebrating the Outlaw Country era now on view at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
GO WEST: American WestFest, Murphey’s festival dedicated to all aspects of the American West, will be held July 4 – 8 in Red River, New Mexico. “WestFest is a Holy Grail to me,” Murphey says. “It’s a celebration of the art, music, and cultures of the old and new American West. It’s a freewheeling party for people who love the Western lifestyle.”
From the July 2018 issue.