The Power of the Pen: An Interview with David Lee Murphy
Like two sides of a coin, David Lee Murphy has had two sides to his career.
First, there’s the country music recording artist side. Murphy’s debut album, Out with a Bang, was released in early 1995, producing two smash singles–“Party Crowd,” which became the most-played country song of the year, as well as “Dust on the Bottle,” his first and only Billboard #1. He would go on to record four studio albums and land 13 hits on the charts, with five of those climbing into the top 10.
The other side of that coin is the songwriter side. After being dropped from MCA Nashville’s label in the late 90s, Murphy has been one of Nashville’s most prolific hit-makers. He has written or co-written album cuts for artists including Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn, Randy Houser, the Lost Trailers, Brad Paisley, James Otto, John Berry, Chris Young, Aaron Tippin, Montgomery Gentry, and Hank Williams, Jr. Within the last two years, he’s written Kenny Chesney’s number one single “Living in Fast Forward,” Gary Allan’s “A Feelin’ Like That,” Blake Shelton’s “The More I Drink,” Eli Young Band’s “Always the Love Songs,” and another number one in Jason Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor.” Artists he’s associated with are a virtual who’s-who in major country music stars.
Now living on a small farm south of Nashville, David Lee Murphy is at peace with this second life he’s been granted in Nashville. While he still finds a thrill in performing on a stage, his typical days today are filled with family activities, songwriting and riding on the back of a tractor. And yes, if you need to know, it really is a big green one.
KEN MORTON JR.: As I was going through your bio getting ready for this interview, I read that you are the only person in country music history to ever write a song with the late Minnie Pearl. How did you get so lucky?
DAVID LEE MURPHY: Well, it was kind of just by accident. Years ago, Minnie was on a show called Nashville Now on TNN. Ralph Emory was the host of the show. She would come on there and do a skit every night. I went out with a friend of mine who was on the show. They had these dressing rooms that were like little trailers and I was sitting back there waiting for my friend to do his segment of the show. Minnie sat down next to me–she was getting her make-up on and stuff. We just started talking and she started telling me about these great stories about Hank, Sr.. There was stuff about him getting drunk before he was supposed to go on the Grand Ole Opry one night and how it was her job to drive him around and get him sobered up. It was just about that whole story. When I got home, I started coming up with this idea for a song. We got back together and finished it up and it was just so cool. I actually recorded it on my first album. It’s something that I’ve always been real proud of, having a song with Minnie. It’s truly special.
KMJ: I know you were one of the last songwriters to work with Waylon Jennings before his passing in 2002. What was that experience like?
DLM: I’m not sure if I was the last songwriter that he worked with but it’s still one of my biggest highlights for me. I am a huge Waylon Jennings fan. In fact, I had my Waylon t-shirt on just yesterday. We had gotten placed together on a radio show here in Nashville. Waylon and I just got to talking. We just got along really well. I just about knew every song he had ever recorded. I was asking him questions about how he had gotten certain guitar tones, how they cut one song or another, and how they came about everything. We just got to be really good friends. Over the course of a few years there, my wife and I would go out to dinner with he and Jessi. We’d visit the two of them when they were living down in Arizona and we’d just go out to eat. Waylon and I wrote three or four songs together. It’s just a huge highlight of my career. Of all the things, when you get to work with your hero, it’s just really special. He was a huge influence on me musically. It’s a career highlight, really.
KMJ: These days, you spend much of your time in the country, tending to fields. What’s a typical non-touring day for you like?
DLM: I still write every single day. I won’t write today, because I’m on the road, but that’s the exception. I’ll get up and go fix coffee. Sometimes I’ll even sit down before that with my guitar and see what I can come up with, song-wise. I might write in Nashville. My farm is south of Nashville. And if I’m not writing here I might go into Music Row and write there. Or sometimes I just might go to someone’s house. If I’m not writing, though, I’m usually doing something on my farm. I’ll be found cleaning something up or cutting down weeds or there’s really no telling.
KMJ: Walk me through the song creation process for you, is it lyrics, title or melody first?
DLM: It’s never ever the same way twice. I might have an idea from somebody saying something. Or I might just have an idea in my head. Or another writer might have an idea. We try to find an angle on how that might be a song and sometimes it might just be a simple guitar riff. Sometimes I come up with a little melody in my head. That’s how it happened with “Big Green Tractor.” I was out bush-hogging on my farm one night and I had the lights on. It was about 8 o’clock and I was driving along in this field. I was cleaning up this fence row and just started singing this melody and then this chorus of driving this big green tractor I was on. I was singing just little bits and pieces. The next day I was writing with Jim Collins who had written “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” for Kenny. I walked in there and asked him if he’d be willing to tackle another tractor song. And he said, “Yeah.” So we sat down and wrote that. I never know if it’s going to be starting a song with a line and it turning into something or a song. It just never happens the same way twice.
KMJ: Many of your popular songs have been geared more towards the lighter and more fun side of things. Is there ever a darker side of things for David Lee Murphy, the songwriter? Everyone has those kind of days, don’t they?
DLM: My whole thing about music, and the kind of music I like listening to, is to escape. It’s escapism. It’s not about problems and issues. I just don’t approach life that way. That’s why most my stuff is about good times and parties. Just about all my songs are about fun, good time things. Those are the kinds of songs I’m attracted to from other artists. There might be an issue here or there or some darker moments that I write about. It’s like how I approach my shows when we play live. You know, you’ve been working all week, you’ve got stuff going on, there’s crazy things going on in the world, and the last thing that I want to do when I go out to party is dwell on a bunch of crap. I want to have fun. I want to hang out with folks that want to get drunk and party.
KMJ: Do you have artists in mind as you’re finishing or processing a song?
DLM: Yes. There’s always someone in my mind that I think that this would be great for. This would be great for Kenny. Or this would be great for Jason Aldean. Or this would be great for Tim McGraw. There’s some guys that mostly record just their own songs. Like Alan Jackson. Sometimes, I’ll have a song and just say, “You know, Alan would just kill this.” Every writer in the world does this, though. Every writer who reads this is going to say, “Yeah, I do the same thing.” You want a George Strait cut. Everybody is dying to have a George Strait cut on his albums. The same with an Alan Jackson cut. There’s just guys that are great writers and singers and stuff. I’d love to have an Alan or a George cut. I’ve never had either. Like Alan, to me he’s such a great artist and such a great writer. After all these years, he’s still writing all his own songs. He’s just amazing. When you get somebody like that to cut one of your songs, that’s just really cool.
KMJ: Is a song as much “one of your babies” when it’s recorded and released by someone else rather than being written and recorded by you?
DLM: Oh yeah. Always. It’s always a thrill to have some other artist record one of your songs. It’s not quite as fun as you doing it yourself, but in a way it is. If I record my own stuff, I’m already biased to the songs. If another artist records your songs, though, it kind of verifies to you about the songs worth and gives you good validation.
KMJ: Is it easier being a songwriter or a performing artist in Nashville?
DLM: Neither are easy. It’s really tough in this music business. It’s probably like trying to be an actor, a writer, a screenwriter or something else in Hollywood. It’s a real competitive business. There’s pros and cons about being an artist and there’s pros and cons about being a songwriter. As a songwriter you have no guarantee about anything. There’s absolutely no job security. You don’t know if the last song you had cut is your last. It’s like panning for gold, you just never know what’s going to happen. If you’re an artist, you don’t know if the last song you got on the radio is your last. It’s not fun running around in circles, you know? Neither one are easy. It’s just a blessing for any person that gets to do it. It’s just like the old saying: “You have to count your blessings every day.” You’re really fortunate if you’re able to do it.
KMJ: That leads me well into my next question, are we ever going to see a new CD any time soon with your name on it?
DLM: I really don’t know. People ask me if I’m ever going to do another record. I won’t say, “Never,” but I don’t have plans to it right now. I’m enjoying writing songs for other people. I’m just constantly writing songs and sometimes I put two or three songs together and think that it would be a great start to an album for me. Then someone will cut one of the songs and somebody else will cut another one and I’m right back to the drawing board. Maybe I’ll just put it off a little bit longer that way. I was touring a little while back in Georgia and we’ve got kids out in the audience that were ten years old when “Dust On The Bottle” was blowing and going. To them, they don’t even consider it was a hit. It’s just crazy. But they still respond to all that stuff. I’ll just keep making music and see what happens. I really don’t know.
KMJ: Looking back on those MCA years, would you have done anything different on your releases if you had the chance to do it over again?
DLM: I’m sure I would have done a lot of things differently. Looking back on that first album, it was a different time period than it is now. Everything worked differently those days. There’s probably things I would have done differently. Yeah. That’s kind of water under the bridge, now. I’ve always tried to write the best songs I can write and just believe that everything works out for the best and for a reason. I’ve been real fortunate the last few years to have the guys record my music that has been recording them. Kenny. Jason. Gary Allan. I’ve been really fortunate with everyone like Montgomery Gentry, Brooks and Dunn and Tim McGraw. And you know what? It’s always been my dream to be a songwriter, like Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver. All those great writers like Harlan Howard have inspired me. I’ve always thought that was the coolest thing. I’m really happy doing what I’ve been doing. I may not make another record, but I still love touring. We’re playing in clubs still and people are practically standing on the stage. In fact, they were getting on the stage last night. It’s fun. It’s just a lot of fun.
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