The symbiotic relationship of music cities Austin, TX and Nashville TN goes back more than four decades. It’s a curious story that mingles art, commerce, the counter-culture and the birth of the Outlaw country movement, which brought unprecedented artist autonomy to Nashville. The story is told in loving detail in the new exhibit Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring 70s, which just opened at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. In Episode 59 of The String we dive deep into the Austin/Nashville dynamic in a feature interview with Michael Martin Murphey.
Best known to many for his crossover hit “Wildfire” from the summer of ‘75, Murphey’s had a wide ranging career. His songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash and Lyle Lovett among others. And he’s earned abundant recognition for his decades as a champion and revivalist in the field of cowboy songs and western music.
But before all that, Murphey was a key player in the Austin TX phenomenon, residing there as a full time musician from 1968 to 1974. He was a regular at the Armadillo World Headquarters, the iconic venue at the heart of the live scene, where a diverse audience heard a diverse array of roots music, from hard country to traditional blues. Murphey, along with Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker (about whom he wrote the era-defining song “Cosmic Cowboy”) and others forged a country-rock hybrid that became the foundation for the progressive folk music field we now call Americana.
Murphey, who divides his time between Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, was in Nashville recently for two reasons. First, he performed at the opening night concert of Outlaws & Armadillos, a big multi-artist show produced by Shooter Jennings and David Cobb. And he was working on the recording of a new album due later this year called, appropriately, Austinology. It’s a love letter to a very special music scene and legacy.
In our conversation, we talk about developing as a songwriter and poet at UCLA and in Dallas where he spent the early 60s before finding the Austin scene. As for what was born there, he says it was that rare
“It went a lot of different directions. But the flame never died," he said. "The singer-songwriter being the basis of it, rather than being a great performer and in front of a band but other people wrote the material. The idea that you wrote your own material and were kind of a beat poet/writer. That defined the scene and that has never died in Austin.”
We round out the hour visiting with the exhibit’s co-curator Peter Cooper.