When Michael Martin Murphey returns to his onetime home of Austin on Friday at the Paramount Theatre, it’ll be to present his 25th annual “Cowboy Christmas” concert, a holiday affair he started shortly after he released his first Christmas album in the early 1990s. Two others have followed, and he’ll no doubt work plenty of seasonal fare into the show.
But this is Austin, and Murphey released an album called “Austinology” in October. So we might get a glimpse into Murphey’s reconsideration of the early-1970s years that were so pivotal in shaping him as an artist.
“Austinology” is an unusual but fascinating document, mixing new recordings of Murphey’s classics such as “Wildfire,” “Cosmic Cowboy” and “Alleys of Austin” with covers of favorites from his peers of that era. Among them are Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Quicksilver Daydreams of Maria,” Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Little Bird” and Steven Fromholz’s “Texas Trilogy.”
In some respects, it’s similar to Lyle Lovett’s 1998 Texas songwriters tribute “Step Inside This House” — and that’s fitting, because Lovett is among many guest vocalists who contributed to “Austinology.” Others include Willie Nelson, Amy Grant, Steve Earle, Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison and Randy Rogers.
Also present are Gary P. Nunn and Bob Livingston, veteran Austin musicians who were associated with Murphey when his first records helped lay the groundwork for the “outlaw” movement that followed in mid-1970s Austin. Earlier this year, when the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville introduced an Austin-themed “Outlaws & Armadillos” exhibit that runs through early 2021, Murphey sang “Cosmic Cowboy” as part of the opening-gala concert.
But “Austinology” is less about the movement that peaked with 1976’s landmark “Wanted! The Outlaws” album starring Nelson and Waylon Jennings and more centered on the formative years that immediately preceded it. “My album is really about 1968 to 1974,” Murphey says. “I left Austin in 1974, only two years after Willie got there, and before everybody was calling themselves an outlaw. I felt like I didn’t want to do my whole career here, and I had an opportunity to move to Colorado, and I wanted to be up in the mountains. That was my dream.”
Murphey’s biggest hit — “Wildfire,” a top-5 pop smash in 1975 — arrived right after he left Austin. He returned frequently, kicking off the third season of the “Austin City Limits” TV show in 1978; he’s played the show a half-dozen more times since then. But he soon turned away from mainstream pop and country toward more traditional cowboy and western music; that’s been his focus for most of the past three decades.
Murphey moved to Colorado partly because he was disillusioned with what he saw as commercial exploitation of the music created here. “I felt like it had become mainstream marketing,” he says. “Outlaw became a brand, like McDonald’s, at that time. I’ve always agreed with what Clint Eastwood said one time. He said, ‘Any time I see a trend, I run 180 degrees in the other direction.’”
Murphey laughs heartily as he recalls Eastwood’s words, then further explains his lifelong zig-zag between alternative and commercial realms. “The trend could be that alt is cool, but whenever alt becomes cool, I’ve always run toward the mainstream. Whenever the mainstream gets to be the ruler, then I go the other way. I feel like any time there’s art by committee, you’re in trouble.”
Our conversation took place in a Nashville office on a late-May morning amid the “Outlaws & Armadillos” opening-weekend festivities. An hour spent with Murphey offered plenty of insight into the time and place and songs that shaped “Austinology,” an album that was sparked in part by the exhibit.
Austin filmmaker Eric Geadelmann contacted Murphey several years ago to interview him for video footage that’s woven into the music exhibit and featured in “They Called Us Outlaws,” an in-progress documentary series.
“Initially I said, ‘I really don’t want to look back right now in my life, because I’m into a whole different scene,’” Murphey recalls. “But I realized that if I hadn’t done that interview, that they weren’t going to know about some of the really seminal days of the Austin music scene. So I started realizing I needed to be a part of this. And then I got real excited about going back and redoing some of these songs of mine, but primarily doing other songs that I considered to be some of the most creative songs of the time period.
“I didn’t want to just do my own material, and I didn’t want to cover the outlaw thing; I wanted to cover what it was before the outlaw thing started. I’m not anti-outlaw; it’s all good, you know. But a lot of people don’t realize what it was like before that. And it was a bunch of really very folky kind of singer-songwriters who liked to tell stories in their songs.
"That was totally unacceptable in Nashville; in pop music and in country music, the A&R directors wanted love songs. And we were not writing that kind of stuff. Townes Van Zandt was writing ‘Snowin’ on Raton’ or ‘Pancho & Lefty.’”
On “Austinology,” Murphey dug deeper into Van Zandt’s catalog for “Quicksilver Daydreams of Maria,” a mesmerizingly beautiful song. Indeed, what’s most intriguing about “Austinology” is the specific songs Murphey chose from his early-1970s compadres.
Though Murphey says he loves Walker’s signature tune “Mr. Bojangles,” he did the lesser-known “Little Bird” with guest Kelly Willis because of “the poetry in it. Jerry Jeff’s really overlooked as a poet.” The choice of Clark’s “L.A. Freeway,” delivered as an ubpeat rocker with the Last Bandoleros backing him, was personal: “I really related to it because, like Guy, I bailed out of L.A. and came back to Texas,” Murphey says, recalling his 1960s days studying ancient history and literature at UCLA and working as a staff songwriter for Screen Gems.
Another key early 1970s figure, Gary P. Nunn, sings on “Cosmic Cowboy” and “Alleys of Austin” but also is represented as a writer with the seven-minute “South Canadian River Song,” which first appeared on Murphey’s 1973 album “Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir.” Nunn and Murphey wrote it together, but Murphey says it was Nunn who primarily created the song’s epic structure. "That’s not something I would have ever done,” he says.
And then there’s “Alleys of Austin,” a song I’ve previously cited as “the best song about Austin ever recorded.” The version on “Austinology” may suffer from too-many-cooks syndrome; Nelson, Lovett, Willis, Robison, Nunn and Randy Rogers all sing on the track, but to me it’s still best captured on the “Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir” original.
I asked Murphey to speak at length about “Alleys of Austin.” Here’s how it came to be, and what it’s about:
“I was actually sitting in an all-night deli where you could get breakfast there at 4 in the morning. It was a true Jewish delicatessen. As I recall, it looked out on an alley; it looked out on a street scene. I’ve always been a guy who stayed up all night long. Daytime, so many other things come in; nighttime is the time when you can write, and nobody’s going to bother you. But the way I write is, I get a melody first. So once I get the meter of that melody in my head, I can sit and just work out of a notebook and a rhyming dictionary and not even have a guitar in my hand. I can work on the lines because I know the form, and that’s really what I was doing.
“I was looking out on the alleys, and I was thinking how most of us who were in Austin at that time were pretty down on our luck and didn’t have much money. Most of the music really did come out of a very funky kind of alley-bohemian scene. I compare it to Paris in the 1930s; it was a very bohemian, live on wine and cheese kind of a life.
“The line about ‘The laid-back baboon by the light of the Texas moon was combing his auburn hair’ — I was describing Charles John Quarto, who was kind of the spiritual poet of the scene down there. He actually came from Greenwich Village, and he had red hair that stuck out. He was kind of a comedian also, the class comedian of the whole movement. He literally would do stuff as silly as acting like a baboon once in a while. So that’s where that line came from. People said I was describing Willie Nelson, but I wasn’t; I was describing Charles Quarto. Charles and I wrote ‘Geronimo’s Cadillac’ together.
“I was very influenced by the beat poets that came out of Greenwich Village and San Francisco then. One of my heroes was Leonard Cohen, and Leonard Cohen was also produced by Bob Johnston (who produced Murphey’s first five albums). So there’s all these connections here. I got to be around Leonard quite a bit, in the early part of my career. When I first started recording with Bob, he introduced me to Leonard. I think Leonard’s style of writing really influenced the way I wrote the lyrics from that song.
"Leonard was an imagist poet — very much like Chinese poetry in probably the third dynasty of Chinese poetry. It’s like haiku; you throw out an image, and you let people read into it whatever that means. You don’t explain or get referential to what that really means to you as a poet. If you look at the song ‘Bird on a Wire’ by Leonard Cohen, he’s just throwing out images: ‘Like a bird on wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I’ve tried in my way to be free.’ And that kind of lets the listener pick what that means to them personally. So after I was exposed to him, I wrote songs differently.
“The operative line in ‘Alleys of Austin’ to me is: ‘In the Alleys of Austin and heaven, the songs they play are pretty much the same. The jam sessions sound like the gutters as the muddy licks and sticks roll down the drain. And the drain pipe rolls down to the river and the Pedernales flows to the sea.’ It was people writing from the alleys, I guess, is my point of view. We were street poets.”