John Murry - photo by Amoreena Berg
Photo: Amoreena Berg

A conversation with Oakland’s John Murry is an adventure that takes you all over the place. He’ll quickly change the subject from sports, history, fiction, politics, and of course music in the blink of an eye. In just a couple of hours of conversation at Alameda’s Lemon Tree, we hit on the following topics:

  • Murry helping crack dealers avoid arrest in Oakland
  • How his hometown of Tupelo, MS is surprisingly progressive.
  • Chuck Prophet‘s IQ
  • Performing community service with rapper Project Pat in Memphis
  • Al Davis’ connection to the citizens of Oakland
  • Usher’s at Al Green’s Memphis church
  • The brilliance of Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane. (Actually, most conversations with Murry involve a discussion of the brilliance of Billy Beane)

He took over the jukebox with songs from AC/DC, Randy Newman, and Lucero’s “Hate and Jealousy”, which features Murry on lead guitar. (He recalls thinking, “Fuck it, let’s get metal with it”, when describing his approach to the solo). Eventually, Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Pissin’ in the Wind” came on and we listened closely to the words. When you really pay attention, you see that “Pissin’ in the Wind” is much more than a humorous education in urination under certain weather conditions, just as a conversation with Murry reveals that he’s so much more than a singer who wrote a deeply personal song about his heroin overdose. One line rang especially true for Murry:

How we worked and we suffered and struggled
Makin’ our record till we got it right
Now we’re waiting on the check to come sneaking down the hall
Like that old time feeling
That we never should have ever put the record out at all

When he heard it, Murry lit up and said, “This is me, right here!” Throughout our conversation, the lone recurring theme Murry kept returning to was just how fucked up the music industry is for someone trying to earn a living. Despite a critically acclaimed album, European, Australian, and US tours, he’s still made shit for money over the last two years.

Take the release of Graceless Age, for instance, which received insanely positive reviews and sold relatively well. The closer of the album was a cover of Bobby Whitlock’s “Thorntree In The Garden”. A mixup with someone in Whitlock’s management team led to them going after a label that released Graceless Age internationally for a cut of every album sold, scaring the label into withholding Murry his cut.

What about touring? Murry has drawn for 1500 people to a show in London and 1000 in Dublin. Surely that tour made some money, right? Aside from a winter tour of Australia, Murry says, “The other tours all cost me. Shows here cost me. Cost my family. Cost us.” He tells me he couldn’t afford to hire a band for his tour with Shuggie Otis. He’s still awaiting payment for a European festival he played way back in June. Sadly, touring remains a struggle for John.

However, much like Walker reflecting on his past in “Pissin’ in the Wind”, Murry says he’s recognizing mistakes he’s made over the past few years in the music industry. When I asked him what he’s doing differently, Murry said “everything” and quoted a line from his forthcoming album: “You won’t hear me singing you no stories without trying to get paid upfront.” His European manager, Chris Metzler, has made strides resolving the dispute with Whitlock’s team and securing other money Murry is owed. His winter tour of Australia, where Murry says, “They’re straightforward, good people,” earned him decent money. Finally, he’s signed with Warner Australia, who actually provided an advance to record his forthcoming album.

Shortly after Graceless Age was released, Murry was quoted as saying that if he wasn’t able to earn a living as a musician in a year, he’d start driving a UPS truck. I asked him if there was a chance he’d see himself delivering packages soon. “I don’t have a driver’s license – or current registration – and can’t afford either, so I’m ridin’ dirty for a good while,” adding, “No – I won’t give up.”

John Murry’s playing Amnesia with some local friends Sunday, September 14. Go see some great music and make sure Murry gets paid. Here’s his most recent EP, Califorlonia (on Spotify, because every fraction of a cent helps, I guess):

John Murry, Tom Heyman, Melissa Philips & James DePrato, ¿goatroast?
September 14, 2014
7:30pm, $7-10