Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Roger Murrah

March 6, 2010
Songwriter Roger Murrah's lyrics to the hit song "High Cotton" draw directly on his experiences growing up on a small family farm in Alabama. The song's stanzas juxtapose images of poverty and hard work with descriptions of parents who anchor their children in love and faith-and the comfort that comes with that. The chorus drives that comforting feeling home with a sing-along anthem about how children from such families tend to remember the security more than the hard times.

"We knew that no matter what else was going on in the world, it was going to be OK there at home," Murrah said of writing "High Cotton" with co-writer Scott Anders. "I think the reality of it helped it communicate with people."

Two recordings of "High Cotton"-Murrah's original demo and the recording by country group Alabama that became a #1 hit in 1989-opened a celebration of Murrah's work at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The song offered an apt example of what makes Murrah's work special: His lyrics repeatedly draw on images and sounds of the Old South while providing philosophical statements about the values of living a simple, loving, spiritual life. At the same time, as a long-running music publishing executive, Murrah often employs the same honest, hard-working ethos found in his songs to his long-running career as a businessman.   

Murrah was honored in an installment of the museum's quarterly Poets and Prophets series, which celebrates songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music. The ninety-minute program included personal family photos as well as audio and video clips from the museum's Frist Library and Archive.

"Roger is one of the rare people who has great musical talent and great business organizational skills," program host Michael Gray said of Murrah, who has been writing hit songs since the early 1970s and was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005. He also is senior vice president of Bug Music and fifth-term chairman of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Foundation. 

Murrah was thirteen when his father traded a pickup truck for a piano, and Murrah's brother learned to play the song "Blueberry Hill" on the instrument. "I thought if he could do it, I could probably do something like that too," Murrah said.

After high school, Murrah became lead singer in a rock band, Jamie Hurt & the Mariteens, with Murrah adopting a new stage name as bandleader. "We got kind of half-famous in the northern Alabama area," Murrah said.

Murrah enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968. "I learned a lot about people from all over the world, and I got to know people from all over the United States," Murrah said of his stint in the armed services. "It expanded my horizons as a young, southern boy."

While serving, he signed a publishing deal with Rick Hall, owner of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. After his release from the service, he worked with engineer and producer Nelson Larkin in helping set up a small studio in Huntsville, Alabama, where Murrah first recorded. Country star Bobby Bare cut some tracks there, and Bare encouraged Murrah to move to Nashville. Murrah made the move, and not long afterward signed a songwriting contract with Bare's company.

"The writing started taking off after I'd been here a few years, and I couldn't afford to put time into the artist thing," he said. "I'm thankful it worked out like that, because it's a better life, with all due respect to our artists out there on the road pounding it." 

Murrah depicted Bare's office as a microcosm of the rough and rowdy Nashville songwriting scene of the 1970s. "I was different," Murrah said with a chuckle. "I stayed on the fringe and watched them. I'd go home in my little quiet desperation, and they did their thing. I'm a Christian, and I've always wanted to be faithful. There were things going on that weren't appropriate for me, but I did the best I could, and all those guys were all good to me."

Murrah's first successful song on the country charts was Wynn Stewart's 1973 recording of "It's Raining in Seattle." "I didn't know a whole lot about the world back in those days," he said. "I didn't realize it rained that much in Seattle. I just loved the sound of it. I came to find out it actually rains a lot there."

Still, Murrah struggled for several years. For a spell, he returned to Alabama to manage a grocery store in Montgomery. He eventually returned, and in 1979 his luck began to turn. Mickey Gilley recorded Murrah's "My Silver Lining," which became a #8 hit and the songwriter's first Top Ten. Conway Twitty's "A Bridge That Just Won't Burn," another Murrah composition, broke another barrier, going to #5. Then Mel Tillis recorded "Southern Rains," and in early 1981 Murrah had the first of many #1 hits.

Murrah also discussed his long-running songwriting collaboration with Keith Stegall. The two have written more than twenty songs together, including "We're in This Love Together," a major pop hit for singer Al Jarreau. "Al called our office and said he was going to be recording it," Murrah said. "I didn't know who he was, so I went to a record store and bought an album by him called This Time. After hearing that album, I said, 'I don't know what he's going to do to it, but it's going to be good.'"

Stegall went on to produce country star Alan Jackson's albums, and Murrah co-wrote Jackson's first single, "Blue Blooded Woman," with the singer and Stegall. The same three men co-wrote "Don't Rock the Jukebox," an important #1 hit from early in Jackson's career. Murrah has a co-write, "True Love Is a Golden Ring," on Jackson's album due out March 30, 2010.

"Roger has been a great mentor and friend," Stegall said of Murrah in a statement read by Gray, the program's host. "He taught me the difference between a good song and a great song. Lyrically speaking, he taught me that less is always more."

Murrah also developed another close songwriting relationship with a major country artist, the late Waylon Jennings. Jennings first recorded Murrah's "Where Corn Don't Grow," and released it as a single in 1990. Although not a hit for Jennings, the song became a #6 hit for Travis Tritt in 1997. Gray played Jennings's original version of the song, and as Murrah listened, he wiped away tears. "That was very sad to me," he said as the song ended. "Waylon was a wonderful friend to me."

Murrah helped Jennings write an entire album, A Man Called Hoss, based on Jennings's life, and the 1987 release carried the subtitle "An Audio-Biography by Waylon Jennings and Roger Murrah." At the start, Murrah was concerned about how to deal with some of the more difficult aspects of Jennings's life, such as his well-publicized bouts with drug abuse. "He made me this promise that he never did back down on," Murrah said. "He said, 'We will write it in a way we're both happy with, or we won't put it out.'"

Gray also noted several other of Murrah's most successful songs, including "Ozark Mountain Jubilee" for the Oak Ridge Boys; "Goodbye Time" for Conway Twitty and, later, Blake Shelton; "Life's Highway" for Steve Wariner; "I'm in a Hurry (and Don't Know Why)" for Alabama; "It's a Little Too Late" for Tanya Tucker; and "Only Love" for Wynonna.  

Gray brought up how rare it is for a major songwriter also to be a top publishing executive. "I love business," Murrah said, and he referenced his long-lasting independent publishing company, Murrah Music. "To have a publishing company for nineteen years, I've enjoyed that a lot. When I'm doing business, I just let the creative part rest and don't think about it. Then, when I'm being creative, I let that business thing rest. But I love it all."

His even-handed, mild-mannered ways also help him balance his work. Indeed, Murrah said he often counsels younger songwriters, telling them that building an enduring career in the music business can be helped by not reacting too strongly to its highs or lows.

"This business is never quite as great as it seems, and it's never quite as bad as it seems," Murrah said. "Psychologically, you have to stay in the middle, and not be overwhelmed by either extreme."

-Michael McCall