Song of the South
Singer-songwriter Trish Murphy feels a particular warmth for Dallas. "The Dallas music scene really brought me back to life," she says. "When I was at school [at the University of Dallas], Deep Ellum was in its beautiful early phase, this amazingly fertile, creative environment. I remember living out in Irving and just getting in the car and going down there. I'd hit the Prophet Bar, Club Dada, Club Clearview almost every single night, whether I was with friends or by myself--it was just an amazing place to be."
Perhaps she was remembering some of that energy at her last gig at Poor David's as she poured out some of the freshest, sharpest songcraft in recent memory, accomplishing a fusion of rock, country, and folk that recalls the best work of Tom Petty and John Prine. She and her band--brother Darin on drums, David Lucas on bass, and newest addition Cary Bowman (late of the Coffee Sergeants) on guitar--yield up equal portions of Texas twang, bar-band crash and jangle, and campfire strum-along that remind one of Willis Alan Ramsey fronting the Wallflowers. Murphy--a slender blonde whose voice makes sure you never think of her as slight--is a deceptively young-looking 32, but has a command of the stage more appropriate to someone a decade older. It's a mastery all the more impressive for the chumminess with which she pulls it off, never seeming distant or remote, yet never yielding her identity as the person on the stage.
Brawnier in her delivery than Carrie Newcomer, more cosmopolitan than Trisha Yearwood, her intelligent wordplay suggests Nanci Griffith's brain working Lucinda Williams' pipes. Strumming her acoustic guitar as the band whips along their amalgam of classic American styles, she tickles that part of the brain that produces that pulse-quickening hey, we might just have something here.
Murphy grew up in the Heights section of Houston. Her dad, Darrell, was a "hippie songwriter" who had a pop band called the Family Plot, a contemporary of vaguely recalled bands such as Bubble Puppy and Ozz Knozz. Darrell and Hallie Murphy had married young--17--and the kids grew up in a house full of music. Trish's first concert was the Hurricane Carter benefit Bob Dylan staged at the Astrodome in 1976. "I always felt pretty proprietary about music as a kid," she remembers. "I was always aware that I knew more about music, certainly more than anybody my age. When I was 10 or 11, I was just learning to play the guitar, and there were all these 20-to-25-year-old musician friends of my dad's who really treated me as a peer."
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As proprietary as Murphy may have felt toward music, there was also ambivalence. As she finished high school, she "began to feel like I was out of contributions, so I decided to focus on other things--if I wasn't going to be a songwriter, I'd see what other things I'm good at." That led her to UD in Irving, where she majored in psychology, developed a passion for drama, traveled to Europe, and "didn't pay that much attention" to her making music. Upon graduation, she returned to Europe for what she describes as a "three-week job interview" for a position with the Wall Street Journal. "I was convinced that I'd go there and live this expat lifestyle and have this great intellectual career," she says.
It didn't work out that way. "I got there and was absolutely depressed," she recalls, her usually sunny voice still darkening a bit at the thought. "I knew I was supposed to be a writer, but not this kind, and I had these weird work hours, like from four to midnight, and the rest of the time I spent in the bathtub of the Grand hotel, listening to Suzanne Vega and Prefab Sprout records."
It was a defining moment. "At the time, the music really saved me...it was like a guiding voice, and when I got back stateside I had to call the Journal editor in Paris and turn the job down," she says. "It was a huge catharsis, my realizing that I really couldn't be happy without some creative outlet. I was missing my direction, but by abandoning it, I rediscovered how vital it was to me. It was like doing this might kill me, but I'll die if I don't--there was no alternative."
She spent a year in Los Angeles, accompanied by her ever-present notebook in which she'd scribble ideas, and then came back to Houston in 1989. Before you could say "Jackopierce," she and her brother Darin started playing together in a folksy duo, starting out at coffeehouses and the like as Trish and Darin. Although some found them cutesy and derivative, T&D became quite popular in their hometown, putting out several albums, adding a rhythm section, and getting to the point where they were filling 400-seat clubs.
The duo broke up in 1995; Darin had earlier moved to Austin and was tired of the commute, and there were other issues. "We each had our own songs," Trish explains, "and the new stuff we were writing was trying to include too much. As we got stronger, our sound couldn't accommodate [both styles]; Darin was very much the pop element, while I was the soul and twang." The breakup turned out to be beneficial. "It was like a company splitting its stock; what we each brought to the duo we just took away and broadened for our solo careers. We played our last gig as Trish and Darin, and the next day started writing new songs together. There's enough there, like the Uncle Tupelo-Wilco-Son Volt thing; Darin is definitely the Jeff Tweedy, and I'm the Jay Farrar."
Trish remained in Houston, releasing a six-song EP titled Driving Home in 1995. Home was a declaration of independence from the bubbly days of T&D, with stripped-down, acoustically based songs splashed with color by sharp sessionmen like Jesse Dayton. Years spent listening to the early albums of Emmylou Harris (Blue Kentucky Girl is her favorite) surface in Murphy's voice, colored by her South Texas accent, and her lyrics show her keen ear for wordplay, set, and setting: "He had a split personality/a wannabe and a have-to-be" is the couplet that kicks off "Running Out of Tomorrows," a song about a long-haired refinery worker who plays guitar in the evenings and does Shakespeare in the summer. The song includes Murphy's self-defining "I'd rather go hungry than starve my dreams." The next song--"Wrong Side of Town"--has the great chorus line "I'm hanging on with my mouth hanging open."
Like her poise on stage, her insightful words are the result of all the drama she studied at UD. "I really got a lot out of them," she says of those classes. "Especially in the sense of technique and characterization, I borrow a lot from the methodology of drama, and it helps me develop as a songwriter and a performer." Her voracious reading--she's fond of C.S. Lewis, Amy Tan, and Walker Percy, to name a few--also helps.
"The whole process of reading is where you find your narrative voice and character," she explains, admitting that in her readings one can find an affinity for the South that she traveled through in her childhood, when her dad supplemented his musicians' (read: complete and utter lack of) pay with his daytime identity as a "refinery-engineer-construction guy," moving the family as job opportunity dictated. "I think about Carson McCullers a lot," Murphy says. "Especially when I think about the dilemma of the format that I'm writing in--it's not really country, and it's not really pop, it's more like the beautiful bastard child of two of the most skewed music forms on the popular landscape. [When looking at my work] I think 'it isn't Hee Haw, it's more Carson McCullers than that.'"
Like Pat Conroy, another writer whose work she loves--"except for the last book, everybody in it was so psycho"--Murphy is an artist with a definite sense of place. "There's this whole element to being Southern and being literate that has a really beautiful texture to it. Maybe I'm caught up in the fantasy of it, but it's a combination of a really intellectual, linear quality, placed in the context of the beautiful, fertile, feminine South, this palpably humid, languid, moist place...the states of the South all have their own unique feminine qualities, like a passel of fascinating women. I just feel that the perspective of a Southern woman is very unique, and I'm grateful and proud to have that."
Reading takes a back seat, however, when Murphy goes into songwriting mode. "I have to put myself on reading deprivation, because reading is an easy and ready distraction ...sometimes you'd rather set your face on fire than go back to a song that you're bogged down in."
Murphy moved up to Austin herself last year, and she and Darin have again joined forces and are currently working on Crooked Mile, Murphy's full-length debut. A preliminary listen to the unmastered mixes reveals a sound identical to Murphy's live vibe--think John Prine's brilliant 1991 album The Missing Years, subtract most of the melancholy and fatigue, and you're almost there--but Murphy has found that recording has its own hurdles.
"It's hard to go into the studio, because what works for you on stage, it's like the difference between stage acting and film acting--one of the challenges is to bring the drama of the stage to the recording, because when you strip things down to just the voice, you lose the facial expressions, the movement, the talk between songs, and all that has to be concentrated into characterization. There are a lot of songs on the new record where I had to really get into the song's energy as far as how this or that character will speak. There was even one song where I had to sing laying on the floor, singing up into a mike that was pulled way down."
Murphy thinks a lot about the implications of her synthesis of rock and country; it reminds her of her regional preferences. "It shouldn't be mutually exclusive, that Southern people can't be be deep-feeling, deep-thinking intellectual people, [but] it's the same kinda deal with pop radio--if you've got a twang in your voice, you're country."
Although Murphy has high hopes for the whole Americana format and her place in it, she acknowledges that her music is brighter than the sometimes-bleak musings of Mssrs. Farrar and Tweedy. "I have no problem with the charm factor in songs, and I think that a song can be charming and need not be anything else. I know you're walking a fine line around being cute, but I don't mind flirting with that line at all because I think that for a song to be evocative, it can take that risk. It's easy to get jaded, to think that you've seen it all, but it really doesn't matter if it's all been done--what really matters is that it be real, and that's what makes being on stage so addictive: You want to feel something happening, some connectedness...the molecules out there moving around."
Trish Murphy performs Monday, February 17 as a solo acoustic act opening for Keb Mo' at Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams.
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