Country Cuts: A Q&A with Ralph Murphy
Ronnie Milsap recorded Ralph Murphy’s “He Got You,” and it went to #1. We talked with Murphy about writing hits, thinking about the listeners during their worst time of day, and what he’s looking for as a judge for Ronnie Milsap’s “Country Cut” Contest. Enter the contest for a chance to have Milsap cut one of your songs.
You started off as a musician, in the Slade Brothers, before moving on to writing psychedelic pop and then country songs. How has your attitude towards songwriting developed through all those changes?
I was playing mostly at 10 o’clock at night. At 10 o’clock at night, you can do whatever you want because people are there, number one, for your personality, and number two, for the atmosphere. Part of that is the music, but it’s a part of a many many things. I didn’t realize that. I thought they were coming for the songs. Once I started looking for songs that would resonate with people, I realized there was a different expectation. I wasn’t giving the listener the information the way they expected to receive it.
What changed everything was that a producer signed me to a record deal. His name was Tony Hatch. Tony wrote “Downtown” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway.” He also produced a lot of hit acts at the time. The songs I was playing at 10 o’clock on The King’s Road and in different clubs, those weren’t the songs they needed. That was the first time that it had been graphically written out for me that there was a “time of day” factor. First of all, seven in the morning is drive time. People don’t seek new music at seven in the morning. They want local news, traffic, and a familiar song. A new song is an intrusion.
Do you think that’s beneficial for aspiring songwriters, knowing when or where you want your song played?
Only if you want to have hits. There’s loads of people who don’t really care about having hits because their songs are vehicles for them to be them. That’s wonderful. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s very, very valid. At some point in time, however, you’re going to have to have two or three hits because those are calling cards. Those are things radio is gonna advertise: “Go see Joni Mitchell at Bridgestone arena– ‘Big Yellow Taxi’!” She’s had three or four big hits and those are the ones they’ll play to lure people to go down there. Once they’re there, they’ll fall in love with the 10 minute long jazz interpretations and the really cool stuff she does– which, at 10 o’clock at night, you’re ready for and you’re very accepting of.
How do you balance wanting to write as an outlet and writing songs that people connect with?
The three things we feel we have the mandate to do when we discover we have this gift of creation is whine, preach, and vent. But at some point, if you want to turn it from an avocation to a vocation… you have to get serious. Write your whiny, venting, moaning whatever. Get it all out of your system. Walk away from it for a day or so. Then walk back and say, “There’s a common emotion in here. There’s a common line which is really cool which sums everything up.” So you ferret that out of that morass of misery and you staple that to the wall and lead me to it. But in a way that makes me think. Then there are a whole bunch of other rules that kick in.
For example, how does the song make the singer look to women at the worst time of the day possible? I try to think of that person at worst time of day possible. If I can get them, then the rest falls in line.
You’re kind of a unique judge for the Ronnie Milsap “Country Cut” Contest because you actually have a song recorded by Ronnie: “He Got You.”
I was writing the song for an artist at the time. He had had several hits and toured in big bands and was more of a rock guy. Bobby Wood and I co-wrote that and wrote it specifically for this rock guy. Well, I didn’t realize that he had problems. And it wasn’t necessarily a problem with the song. I’ll leave it at that.
So a few days later, Tom Collins called me up and said, “Ralph! I need a song for Ronnie Milsap,” and I said, “Well, funny you should mention it. I just so happen to have one, but I’m leaving for London. Can I just run it over and drop it off?” I ran into Tom’s office and played about half of it. He said, “Great, I’ll play it for Ronnie and let you know.” I left for London and when I got into my hotel room, the light was blinking and there was a message from Ron saying Ronnie liked the song and wanted to record it.
That song made it to number one, but you’ve mentioned that you don’t just want to write number ones. You want to write “big hits.” What’s the difference?
A simple message that really resonates with people. Simple is hard. You can’t load a whole bunch of really heavy duty lines into a song if you want it to be embraced at drive time. A few years ago, I was in Australia at Song Summit. We were talking about the benefit of one-syllable words. I used my friend Paul Williams’ song “We’ve Only Just Begun.” If you look in there, the only two-syllable words are “only” and “begun” and they’re the destinations. Those are the two words he wants to emphasize. They make an impact.
How do you decide when to keep the details in and when to step back?
You know, you write so much and you get it wrong so much that by process of elimination… you get it right. For me, writing full-time means churning out 80-100 songs a year, demo 60, get three or four cut a year, and get a hit every three years.
I remember when Roger Cook and I had a company and there was a song that took me four and a half years to get recorded. After it did, it was CMA Song of the Year. I looked back over my notes and the song had been turned down… I can’t even begin to tell you how many times.
What advice to do you have for people entering the Ronnie Milsap’s “Country Cut” Contest?
Invite me in… number one. Tell me what the song’s about in the first three or four lines. Get me the first use of the song title within 60 seconds. Then carry the story on. Don’t just rewrite the first verse in the second verse; bring me new information. Have a little bridge that says “what if,” then take me out and make me sing.