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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the May 26, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Singing Stories From the Heart
After releasing two albums that were barely noticed by the Americana and roots music communities, singer-songwriter and guitarist Dave Murphy appears to be hitting his stride with his third release. "Chasing Ghosts," released last year on the Hoboken-based musician’s own Phoenix Night label, has been a hit with Americana and roots radio programmers around the country. One tune on the new album, "My Garden State" is about Murphy’s time growing up in Westfield and living in Cranford and, most recently, Hoboken.
Neptune Township-based pedal steel player Marc Muller’s treatments are all over the album, and much of it has a rootsy, bluesy base. Muller plays professionally with Shania Twain’s touring band, but when he is off the road, he collaborates with many Garden State musicians, including Murphy.
"I don’t know how much of it actually reaches my own music," says the 47-year-old Murphy, who will appear at the Mine Street Coffeehouse in New Brunswick Saturday, May 29. "But I have a great passion for traditional folk and blues and real country music. I would say I’m about American music. I just love the American folk and country music traditions so much more than music from the British Isles."
Murphy, whose other two releases include "Things I Can’t Forget" and "Under the Lights," was born in Queens, New York, and was juggled around New York state in his youth, moving with his parents until they finally settled in Westfield by the time he was ready to enter high school. He graduated in 1975 and attended college in a succession of places out of state before graduating from Kean College in Union. His father "worked in construction and drank a lot," he recalls, and his mother was a housewife.
Pressed about local musical mentors, Murphy says, "there was nothing in Westfield in those days." But there was a country station out of New York, WHN, that took chances (for a commercial outlet) and played the music of Hank Williams, Emmy Lou Harris, and Steve Earle.
Murphy began playing guitar in his late teens, and in the 1970s was drawn to the sounds of the Allman Brothers. "Eat A Peach" and "Live at the Fillmore East" were "revelatory albums to me," says Murphy. "I grew up listening to the old WNEW-FM in the 1970s, when Allison Steele and Pete Fornatale and Vin Scelsa were all on," he says, noting many of these former DJs, who were actually allowed to program their own shows, are now at WFUV, the listener-supported public radio station based at Fordham University in the Bronx.
"My mom gave me a guitar for high school graduation," he recalls, "and I started out just strumming some chords, doing Neil Young covers, and buying the books with the chords in them. I remember buying a book with Eagles tunes in it and learning the chords." In college he began writing his own songs.
"I just felt I needed a better way to express myself. Doing other people’s music wasn’t cutting it for me, and I wasn’t a prolific writer then, it was more like setting poetry to music," he says. "Slowly things started to develop and then it became part of my life, being a songwriter."
Asked about songwriting inspirations, Murphy says there were three primary ones: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen. Of Springsteen, he says, "I think ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ is a magnificent album. It’s an understatement to say he’s an American treasure. He’s not Johnny Cash, but he may be some day."
After a period of "messing up a lot and not really performing out much," Murphy says the last eight to ten years have been productive for him, especially since he has sobered up.
"Chasing Ghosts" charted for 12 weeks on the American Routes report, and last October the album was one of the top five most added CDs by radio station members of the Americana Music Association, an organization based in Nashville. In addition to pedal steel player and fellow New Jerseyan Muller, Murphy is also accompanied on "Chasing Ghosts" by accordionist Neil Thomas, guitarist David Hamburger, and alternative country troubadour Steve Forbert.
Of his songwriting approach, Murphy says he tends to be more lyrically driven, and he’s interested in telling stories and writing ballads. "I tend to start writing a song with the lyric, not the melody," he says. "It all works differently with different songs. My songs used to be more emotionally driven," he says, noting some of the material on both "Under the Lights" and "Chasing Ghosts" was composed in response to his divorce back in 1985.
"Now, hopefully, my songwriting approach is more about telling interesting stories," he says. He believes that if a songwriter is disconnected from the stories he is telling it shows through. "Songs have got to be from the heart," he says.
In recent months, Murphy has opened for Alejandro Escovedo, Suzanne Vega, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Slaid Cleaves, and Steve Forbert. "I’m building a mailing list and selling CDs off the bandstand," he says. "I’m just like everybody else, just trying to make it happen."
In addition to healthy airplay on WFUV-FM in the Bronx, Murphy has also been getting airplay at WUMB in Boston, another public radio outlet that enjoys a healthy listenership and plays Americana, alternative country, and folk music.
"We just did a nice weekend in Boston, and it’s nice to do your show somewhere else, outside this area, and look into the audience and see the audience singing along to your songs," he says, adding that his approach for now, since he’s booking himself, has been to work regionally.
At Mine Street, "I’ll be doing all my own songs and I’ll throw in a few covers, maybe a Gram Parsons or a Townes Van Zandt song," he says. "It’ll be mostly stuff from my new CD, and I’ll sing it like I feel it, as cliched as that sounds."
– Richard J. Skelly
Dave Murphy, with Bob Berzack, Mine Street Coffeehouse, Neilson and Bayard Streets, New Brunswick, 732-254-4647. Saturday, May 29, 8:30 p.m.
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