Name any country artist in the business today and there’s a decent chance David Lee Murphy has written at least one of that artist’s hits. A consummate singer-songwriter, Murphy’s inked what on paper looks like half of modern country’s top tracks – from Kenny Chesney’s “Living in Fast Forward” to Jason Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor,” Thompson Square’s “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not?,” Blake Shelton’s “The More I Drink,” Kip Moore’s rising recent song “Last Shot,” and so on.
But as busy as he’s been with the “songwriter” part of his title, the “singer” in him has been quieter, as up until this time last year, he hadn’t put out an album of his own in more than a decade – since 2004’s Trying to Get There. That was the final of five albums. As of 2017 he was best known for “Dust in the Bottle” and “Party Crowd,” two hits off his first album, 1994’s Out with a Bang.
That all changed this spring when he dropped his new record No Zip Code, featuring the Kenny Chesney duet “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”
Now, at 59, Murphy is soaking up some spotlight again, as “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” went number 1 on the charts and is up for Vocal Event of the Year at the 2018 Country Music Association Awards.
The Illinois-turned-Tennessee resident has said he was quiet for so long in part because he’d gotten comfortable just writing songs for others. It took urging from Chesney – who ultimately produced No Zip Code with Buddy Cannon and Murphy himself – and other elements aligning to light that fire again.
Just days before the CMA Awards, on the morning of a gig opening for industry legend Wynonna Judd at a Minnesota casino, Murphy took time to chat with StarsandCelebs.com. Speaking in a twang only a true country boy could possess, as he joyfully watched snow fall outside his hotel, Murphy discussed his second coming as a singer, his love of and process for writing, what country music is about, and more.
*This interview has been edited for length and conciseness*
On Kenny’s kickstarter call
StarsandCelebs: Before Chesney’s call, since 2004, had you at all considered doing another album?
David Lee Murphy: It’s crossed my mind a bunch, but when you put an album out, if you seriously want to go out and try to promote a single to the radio, there’s a lot of work involved and a lot of hours and time on the road. And for years I had kids playing sports and everything else, I just didn’t want to be gone from home that much… I was waiting until the right time. The Kenny opportunity was the perfect situation, without a doubt just an unbelievable situation, to work with somebody that was a friend, that I really like and like to be around and I respect from many different angles, musically and as a person. It was… a no-brainer for me.
S&C: What about your personalities makes it so easy to work with Chesney?
DLM: We’re both really laid back, Kenny’s laid back. But he’s also a perfectionist and he’s thoughtful and, in regard to making music, he thinks about what he’s doing… he approaches everything with a lot of care. He cares about his music and about how my record was gonna come out, too. We had as much fun celebrating our number one “Everything’s Gonna be Alright,” he probably had as much fun with that as he did with one of his own, just because he put so much time and effort into this album.
S&C: How did you celebrate that Number 1?
DLM: Well we were actually in Columbus, Ohio. It was the Trip Around the Sun tour with Kenny… and the night we knew it was gonna go number one – I did a lot of the stadium shows with Kenny and I would come out to do “Everything is Gonna be Alright,” “Dust on the Bottle” and “Party Crowd,” and that night we knew it was gonna get number one, they brought me this gigantic, like 5, maybe 10-gallon margarita, a gigantic glass, out on the stage. We were in front of 40,000, 50,000 people and it was just fun. They brought me a cake out on stage for “number one,” and it was just really fun, we had a ball.
S&C: How’d it feel to have your first song back after such a long while be so successful?
DLM: It was amazing. I’m really thankful and appreciative of all the people that song connected with. I’ve gotten a lot of notes from people telling me, “thanks for that song because something happened in my life and that song made me smile-- it made me have a better day,” or something like that. And that’s what all songwriters and singers, we want people to have fun, have a good time. If there’s something that just makes you forget something bad going on in your life, it makes it all that much better.
S&C: Can you tell when you finish a song that it’s going to be a hit like that?
DLM: Well I’m biased because I wrote it, but there’s a lot of times that I write a song and I think, “well boy, that’s a hit song” and sometimes they never get recorded – just because there’s only so many artists or so many songs that can go up the charts at one time… I mean one example that took me a long time to demo was “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not?” We sat on that song for about 8 or 9 months before we even recorded it to demo it, and it was just a fluke that we demoed it because a friend of mine who’s a (sound) engineer, he had a session fall out and wanted to know if I had any songs I wanted to record. And I went through some songs that I hadn’t recorded and that was one of ‘em. I thought, “well I always liked that song” and I called my co-writer. It wasn’t one of those party kind of songs we always write… it was just different, and we cut that song and it ended up being a big hit. You never know.
S&C: What song are people most surprised to learn you wrote?
DLM: “Are you Gonna Kiss Me or Not?” … There’s a bunch of songs… I think “Big Green Tractor” was probably one. But it’s funny because if I [perform] songs [I’ve written], sometimes people don’t realize I wrote those songs… like I did a show the other night in Seattle and… some of my more acoustic shows, I do my older material from the 90s, and then I do my newer stuff off my new album, but I also do some of those songs like “Big Green Tractor,” “Living in Fast Forward” and “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not?” and one of the guys right down in front of the stage – he was probably 28 or 29 -- he yelled up at me and goes, “man how come you’re doing those other songs, we want to hear you do old David Lee songs,” and I go, “well I wrote those songs, too,” and he had no idea I wrote those songs, it was kind of funny.
S&C: When you write, do you write with a certain artist in mind usually?
DLM: All the time. Like “Living in Fast Forward” was definitely for Kenny, “Bar at the End of The World,” “Pirate Flag” was for Kenny… Jason Aldean, “Only Way I Know,” we definitely wrote that for Jason. It’s really fun to try to write a song for an artist, sit there and drink coffee, jam on the guitars and just try to say, “well would this be a song for Jason or Luke, or whoever?”
Lately, this year, I haven’t written as much just because I’ve been on the road so much… I’ve got writing dates on the calendar but I’ve been canceling more of them than I’ve been going to... I’ve got a new single out right now [“I won’t be sorry”] and I’m on the road promoting it, so that takes a lot of time.
S&C: Where do you get the inspiration for all your songs, especially since you’ve written so many?
DLM: Gosh it’s everywhere, just everything. I was sitting in the casino last night, sitting there at the bar and I haven’t been writing for so long that everything I heard sounded like a song, which is weird. I never know, I see something, I see a picture or I hear something in a movie, or I hear somebody say something, I just never know where it’s gonna come from. I’m just glad I that it does when it happens.
S&C: Do you prefer to be writing songs for others or performing your own?
DLM: Well my favorite thing would be to write my own stuff and go out and play it, but I love to write songs for other artists. I just like to write songs, just from a creative standpoint. Probably down deep in my heart I’m a songwriter, but I also love to get up there and play music. I love to have my band out there on the stage with me playing songs and watching people have a good time. I have as much fun as anybody at a show, whoever comes to the show, there’s not very many people having a better time than I am when we’re doing a show, so I’m having a blast. It kind of goes hand in hand.
On being back in action
S&C: Was it an adjustment going back into recording for the album?
DLM: Well… I record all those songs that we talked about, I cut demos on those… so we record a song and make it as close to what we think the record should sound like, then we give it to the artist or the producers or whatever. So, I’ve been making little mini records that only the artist or the producers heard, so it wasn’t like anything different. I know all the players and all the studios and all the engineers, so it wasn’t like I just hadn’t been in a studio for a few years, I did that all the time.
S&C: And have you done plenty of touring in the meantime, too?
DLM: I’ve been touring as well, like every summer I do at least, probably 30 dates a year and we would go play festivals and fairs and whatever it might be. It might be some sort of a rodeo or a monster truck show or a demolition derby, you name it. And I love doing that because, like I was saying, we can do all the songs like “Party Crowd” and “Dust on the Bottle” and do the new songs like “Everything is Gonna Be Alright,” or even before that, we could mix in like “Big Green Tractor,” and “Living in Fast Forward” and all that, and have an hour and a half show of a whole bunch of hits. So, it’s a fun night for us to play those songs, but I think it’s fun for everybody else because there’s a lot of songs there that they know.
S&C: Do you have any tour traditions you’ve picked up over the years?
DLM: We pretty much have a few drinks, the guys in the band together, we sit around and just hang out before we go on… everybody’s happy to be back together… it’s just like a family, really.
S&C: Will you be performing again elsewhere with Wynonna Judd?
DLM: Just this one unfortunately. I wish we were doing more because I love Wynonna and we’re friends and I’m friends with Cactus [Moser] as well, her husband. He was in [the band] Highway 101, we’ve been friends for years and I love them both…
On No Zip Code and what’s new – or not.
S&C: Where’d the album title for No Zip Code come from?
DLM: There’s a song on there called “No Zip Code,” and I just came up with that idea thinking it would be cool to live somewhere where you didn’t have a zip code. Basically, that’s what it is, it’s about living out in the country, “we all want to live out in the country, way back off an ol’ gravel road, pick a little spot where they can’t find us, no address, no zip code.”
S&C: In the time since your 2004 album, what do you think of how country music has changed, if at all?
DLM: Well there’s just all kinds of different influences in music, there always has been, and it goes in cycles, and I’ve written right along with it. I like all music so I’m just happy to participate every chance I can, I mean… I was in Tuba City, Arizona and I was sitting there thinking how cool it would be to make a Native American record of some sort with people… I just like making music and I like music, so I’m just happy to be here and be able to make music. That sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s the truth.
S&C: What sound were you going for then with No Zip Code?
DLM: We just wanted to make a fun record that – I think a lot of people nowadays, have a playlist of all different kind of stuff. Like kids can go from George Jones to Metallica, you can have Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and then have like Led Zeppelin thrown in there. Not that we were trying to do that, but like a fun playlist of songs that are not all exactly alike, but they make you feel good. We just want to make a feel-good record. That was a crazy answer to that question, that doesn’t even make sense.
S&C: It does, don’t worry. So how do you compare it to what you’ve done in the past?
DLM: [One person told me], “this doesn’t sound anything like any of your other albums,” and I think it does. Maybe it’s just because I’m singing it and I recorded it… I made this record the same way I made all my other records. You make chili, you might make it different with something one time than another, to make it fun, which you gotta. So… I feel like it sounds exactly like my music, just a different time.
S&C: So then, how would you describe your sound overall?
DLM: I just think it’s kind of blue collar American country, rockin’ … there’s a lot of different sounds and influences in there. It’s t’s a fun record and I think from a songwriting standpoint, there’s some interesting songs in there that tell a lot of stories.
S&C: How do you balance gaining new fans and making new music with old fans’ potential expectations?
DLM: Well I want everybody to like it, naturally, but I love the folks that have been listening to my music for years. I really love it when people, like young kids come out and go “my mom had your album,” that’s really fun. Or college kids that have “Dust on the Bottle,” it’s like “man we party to that in our fraternity” or whatever, I love that.
S&C: What would you say about country music to change the minds of people who dismiss the genre?
DLM: Just listen to it. I couldn’t convince you to like something, but If you don’t like something, you have to open your mind to [try it and] see whether you like it or not. That’s just the way it is with everything... country music has so many different sides, there’s something in there for everybody just about. But everything’s not for everybody, too, so it’s ok...
The thing about country is it’s just regular people music. There’s nothing really fancy – there’s some fancier kind of country music – there’s some good ol’ fashioned country that just makes you feel country. There’s just all kinds of country music, so just listen around to see what you find that you like.
S&C: You had to grind it out in Nashville a while… Do you think it’s easier to get started in a career now or harder, given the Internet and all those other factors that have changed?
DLM: It’s probably harder now. But it’s never been easy, it never will be. Every now and then, somebody is fortunate enough to have a phenomenal start, but for the most part that’s not the case. It takes a lot of time and hard work. There’s people nowadays, with the benefit of social media, they get a little jump on the situation because something they’ve done’s gone viral and that’s really cool, that’s a really cool avenue to be seen or heard that didn’t exist back in those days. But it’s tough, it’s a hard business, just like any kind of entertainment industry. You just have to put your time in and keep trying to get better.
On what’s ahead
S&C: And all this time after the grind, how’s it feel to have the CMA Awards around the corner?
DLM: Well I’m gonna be at the show, and it’s going to be interesting to be nominated with Kenny, since everything that has transpired over the last couple of years. That started off with a phone call about “what do you think we make a record?” to now we’re nominated for Vocal Event of the Year. It’s been pretty fun and it’s been a really great experience and a really fun 2018, so it’s really cool.
S&C: Going forward, do you have plans for another album?
DLM: We’ll just see. I write songs a lot and I’ve got a lot of songs that I would love to go and record, too. We’ve got some running room left on this one [though so] I’ll just cross that bridge when I come to it.
S&C: What other shows do you have coming up?
DLM: We’ve got a variety of shows throughout the rest of the year… I’m playing some promotional shows, and benefit show for radio stations. I’m playing a Christmas show in Michigan in December with Uncle Kracker. And I’m playing a benefit in North Carolina for the hurricane that hit over there and that’s gonna be with Parmalee and Brandon Lee and some other guys.
S&C: Is there anyone you haven’t worked with or written for that you’d want to?
DLM: Gosh there’s so many… Willie Nelson, I love Willie. Just from the standpoint that I’ve never really spent very much time with Willie but I’ve loved him forever. I just like his vibe, he’s so cool.
S&C: He’s performed fairly recently, at age 85. Do you see yourself being on stage at that age?
DLM: I hope so. I’m not going to quit because I want to. I think that’s the same way he is. It’s just like part of your life, and it’s part of who you are. Everything inside you is to be playing music and going out there and singing songs. It’s hard to explain but I get [Willie], I get it.
Tune in to the CMA Awards Nov. 14 at 8/7 c on ABC, to see if Murphy and Chesney take home the prize for Vocal Event of the Year. For upcoming appearances, you can check out Murphy’s concert schedule here and follow him on Twitter @davidleemurphy, Instagram, and other channels noted on his site.