Volume 14 Number 5
Singing for His Soul
01 October 2001

As always, the conferences in Caux were graced by the performances of several richly talented artists. Among them was American song-writer and guitarist Scott Christopher Murray. He told his story to John Williams.

How many million kids grab hold of a guitar to strum a few chords, dreaming that sometime they will make great music? But it's not that easy, of course. It requires a talent that can't be denied, and decades of hard work.

Scott Murray's father, Fred, bought him a $75 guitar when he was 12 and mad keen on the songs of John Denver. By the time it was replaced its neck was bent sideways. He had to content himself with strumming in the local music store on the $800 guitar he really wanted, until he heard by chance that he could get it for $240 in a liquidation sale. Now in his 40s Murray still has it.

In 2000 Murray was nominated for a Grammy award in the Contemporary Folk category. He calls his songs 'a moment in time for me, snapshots taken in living rooms, warehouses and studios all across Nashville'. He lived in Nashville, 'Music City', but his inspiration flows more from growing up in small country communities scattered around the 150-mile long Shenandoah Valley, deep in Western Virginia.

He has shared the stage with an impressive list of performers including Willie Nelson, Chuck Pyle and Kathy Mattea. His friends tell him his lyrics are 'introspective', but he resists being charged with self- centredness. 'I want to give people a key to a door,' he says, 'so they can come in and discover my music, as opposed to having it thrown out to them.'

Murray was born in 1960 in Pensacola, Florida. His mother, Jean, of Irish descent, was a nurse. His father, Fred, from a Scots background, was at that time a sportscaster, describing football, baseball and basketball on TV. As a small boy watching TV re-runs, Scott found it hard to reconcile the fact that his father was on the screen and at the same time sitting beside him.

Such simple human dilemmas provide him with subject matter. One of his songs is about Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem for Jesus to be born. The traditional picture of that journey is peopled with shepherds and angels. Murray wonders to himself what they thought and talked about as they travelled, and how Mary and the baby survived being bounced around on donkey-back. 'I wouldn't want to travel that distance on a donk,' he says, 'and if you're pregnant...'

Scott has an older sister, Tracy, and after his brother, Grant, was born, Fred came to feel that their 'here today gone the next' life in the entertainment industry was too chancy. So he decided to study dentistry, and when Scott was five, took his family from Florida to the Virginia town of Broadway.

Scott was a quiet boy with a pronounced stutter, which worried his parents greatly. The cause, they discovered much later, was a violent first-grade teacher who beat her students and grabbed their attention by wrenching their ears. None of them complained to their parents because they took it for granted that this was what school was like.

As a result of such treatment, Scott 'quit talking totally' for three months. Conquering his stutter required long periods of speech therapy. He had to learn again the rhythms of talking, breathing and making the right sounds as he spoke. The experience drove him deeper into shyness. When his sister and brother got angry they would yell at each other. Scott just looked on. But in his own way he worked quietly at getting his own balance. 'I kept myself to myself, but I had friends in all the cliques, the walks of life, in that school community.' He just watched people—their behaviour, what they made of their lives.

He graduated in the class of '78 with some 120 others, and one of his first decisions on leaving school was to become a volunteer firefighter: 'I loved the excitement of that, and of helping somebody. I'm a sucker for the underdog.' He was raised 'not to see colour' and got into the habit of 'weighing people on merit'.

He enrolled in Elon College, North Carolina, on a loan, and worked nights, weekends and summers to pay for it. Then from 1981-5 he used his own traumatic experience to take a bachelor's degree in Speech Pathology at Harrisonburg, Virginia. This was when he started singing publicly, doing gigs in taverns, bars and acoustic clubs.

When Tracy left home, Scott moved into her attic room where he couldn't be heard by his parents. In fact they first heard him sing when he was 25.

Religion was a central part of his up-bringing. His mother was Catholic, his father Methodist; he was baptised Episcopalian and worshipped in a Methodist church. From this experience he was able to sense where he belonged in the wider community. Today he has a strong Christian faith, he says, though he doesn't 'call himself a Christian writer per se'. He just hopes that what he sings may be 'meaningful to people. I don't write it: it comes through me.' Often with wry humour.

Appaloosa Andy, for instance, works in a circus, renting pony rides to children. His wife Jean, the popcorn girl,
Dreams of a house you can't drive down the road,
Flowers in the garden and washing on the line
And a weatherworn triangle that she rings at suppertime.
She sees him, indeed, as a farmer, but
She recognizes his one shining moment
And it's one she doesn't have the heart to steal...

Murray's grandparents had been married for 62 years when his grandmother died. He tries to live into what his grandfather must be feeling:

Were we dancing late last night
Or was it 40 years ago...
In June?
Every day I climb up and see you on that hill
A crazy old man talking to a stone
But you always assure me, like 50 years ago
So I'm not really sitting here alone

The song Hell only waits in the harbor comes from a trip he made on a shrimp boat into the Gulf of Mexico. He was there to earn money and he never expected to encounter a cyclone. The crew had to rope themselves to the mast as mountainous waves crashed down on them, and only survived because of the seamanship and the iron will of the skipper. But a week or so later Murray was jolted to hear that having saved all their lives, the skipper had lost his, stabbed in a brothel.

Tragedy and disappointment have touched his life at several unexpected moments. In the early Nineties he thought that the child his partner was about to give birth to was his. But tests showed that he was not the father. At first he was devastated, but the little girl's parents asked him to be her godfather. They later had six other children and asked him to be godfather to the others also. In this gesture he found an extraordinary experience of forgiveness and redemption.

In 1985, his brother Grant was found to be HIV positive. For the first six years, you could see little wrong with him. But in 1991, full-blown AIDS made itself more and more obvious. Grant moved in with Scott, because they didn't want to put his parents through the daily torment they would have to face. But of course his parents were in and out of their sons' house until Grant died in August 1994. In the last months particularly, Scott says, they were 'more than brothers': they were 'wonderful friends as well'.

After Grant's death Scott discovered, 'my music was no longer enough for me,' and he began to seek a wider perspective in which to express his talent. Music was becoming a 'cut-throat industry', he felt, when it could instead give valid expression to the experiences of individuals. He came to feel keenly, for instance, that both young and old were being treated badly, and wrote a song about motherless and fatherless kids:

God our father, the earth our mother,

Making us all sisters and brothers.

To increase his ability to help he returned to study and in 1998 qualified as an audiologist.

In 1996, the theatrical producer Bev Appleton suggested that he join the cast of Cotton Patch Gospel, a hilarious retelling of the story of Jesus according to Matthew and Mark. With Atlanta replacing Jerusalem, Appleton himself as Matthew and three guitarists and a banjo player, it provided a modern-day Gospel story which scored some memorable goals from out in left field about today's America.

The play was performed in Harrisonburg at the Blue Ridge Theater Festival for a month and during the conferences in Caux in 2000.

Murray liked the place so much that he paid a return visit this year. In a concert version of some of his songs, he shared his platform with Swiss classical singer Sylvie Söderlund and Parker Bent, an American student songwriter/performer.

'I am just a guitar player', says Murray in one of his songs.

A travelling man, an old song sayer

I play for tips but I sing for my soul.

A luckless son of an old gold digger, one small step above a beggar

My guitar case is just my beggar's bowl

Oh I love this old guitar and I'm proud of who I am

I'll stand out on this corner for as long as I can stand

Until they move me on or until my ship comes in

Or until they roll my body and call my next of kin...
John Williams