BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
Today they call them media opportunities. Back in the day, they were known as press conferences. Reporters didn’t like them because the stories that came out of them were inconsequential. This was particularly true in the case of press conferences with entertainers. What could some singer flogging a new album possibly have to say that would be worth putting on tomorrow’s front page?
Those of us who had been to one too many of them resorted to asking silly questions to fill up the time and get a rise out of the entertainers. I once asked Donny Osmond how many times a day he brushed his teeth to keep them so sparkling white. He answered, in all seriousness, that his teeth were capped. Then his publicist kicked me out of the room. Clearly, I was not showing the proper respect. I was also kicked out of the room when I asked the Bay City Rollers if a singer had to be five foot five or less in order to qualify for membership in the band.
In Anne Murray’s case, I didn’t ask any silly questions. I had too much regard for her talents. What other female Canadian singer had become an international star without moving to England or the States? I couldn’t think of any. So I wasn’t about to insult Murray with questions about dental hygiene or why she sang in her bare feet. Besides, I was hoping she would favour me with a short one-on-one session after the other reporters left. My plan was to ask a couple of innocuous questions at the press conference and hope for a private audience afterwards. If that was granted, I would ask her what I really wanted to know: How would she feel about being categorized as a country music stylist?
The 1978 press conference was held on the 35th floor of the Calgary hotel where Murray was staying. “Calgary looks like it’s just been uncrated,” she said, looking out the window. It was an old line (first used by Mordecai Richler) but it served to break the ice and generate a nervous laugh or two among the reporters. They fumbled with notebooks and tape recorders and tried not to seem too anxious in the presence of the star. Murray remained relaxed and patient.
“I was at a press conference in Victoria recently and a rookie radio reporter asked me how I got started in the business,” she said by way of introduction. “I never thought I’d ever get asked a question like that again. I thought those days were long gone.”
“So, how did you get started?” I asked.
Another nervous laugh, then a long pause.
“Now, what do we do?” she asked. Murray seemed bemused. We shuffled our feet, looked at one another to see who was going to ask the next question, and stared at the floor. Then came a series of non sequiturs followed by more awkward pauses until the record company rep mercifully called a halt to the proceedings.
To my surprise, the rep told me I could have five minutes alone with her. Why me? Because I had written favourably about her singing brother, Bruce Murray, four months earlier, and she had seen a copy of the article. “Anne appreciates what you said about him,” said the rep.
She was then 33 and had been away from performing for two years following the birth of her son. I asked her what it was like trying to combine the duties of a young mother with a full-time career in singing.
“I’m trying awfully hard to make it work,” replied Murray. “Sometimes I get guilty feelings because I come from a kind of old-fashioned family where Mom stayed home and looked after the kids. The secret, however, is having the whole situation under control.” She and her husband Bill, a former TV producer, had decided that he would become the stay-at-home parent while she focussed on her career.
Because her first hit, “Snowbird,” had hit the country music charts before breaking into the pop charts, and because she subsequently appeared as a regular on television’s Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, I asked if Murray would consider concentrating on country music to the exclusion of all else?
“I couldn’t be restricted to one musical bag because I like to do different kinds of music,” she replied. “The aim of any performer is to reach as many people as possible, and you can’t do that with just one kind of music. Besides, it’s great to keep the record people and the press confused.”
I wasn’t sure I agreed with her. Lots of performers, including Glen Campbell for one, had achieved great success by concentrating on one particular genre. Why wouldn’t Murray want to do the same? I didn’t get a chance to ask her this follow-up question because the record company rep then whisked her away to get ready for the evening concert performance. But I found myself thinking about it again later that evening when I watched her perform.
Her concert repertoire was an eclectic mix of folk, pop, light rock and country. All very pleasant, and beautifully sung in her warm, gorgeous contralto. But, as I wrote in my review, with songs like “Cotton Jenny” and “What About Me?” Murray showed “a flair for country music that has never really been developed.” Her middle-of-the-road approach would undoubtedly ensure her continued popularity, I wrote, but in terms of musical achievement “she will never amount to anything more than another pretty voice.”
It seems I wasn’t the only person who felt that way. I learned later that she had just parted company with one record producer, with whom she had made two less-than-successful pop albums, and had chosen a new producer, Jim Ed Norman, with whom she would go on to make 10 very successful country-flavoured albums. Norman had done his homework, Murray wrote in her 2009 autobiography, All of Me. He had listened to all her records and told her he wanted to “take me back to my roots, to a country base that could be used as a platform to do the odd pop or even adult contemporary song.” They hit it off immediately.
The first Norman-produced single release was “You Needed Me.” It rose rapidly in the country charts, crossed over into the pop charts, and brought Murray the 1978 Grammy Award for best pop vocal. Then came a succession of hits, including “Could I Have This Dance?” and “A Little Good News,” which both won Grammies for best country vocal. By the time she retired from performing, in 2009 at age 64, Murray had also won a slew of other country music awards, in Canada and Britain as well as the United States, and joined the Country Music Hall of Fame Walkway of Stars in Nashville. Clearly, she had found her true musical home in country.
No longer singing or recording, she spends much of her time nowadays participating in charity golf tournaments. At age 70, she enjoys being retired. “After a golf game, I don’t have that stress of running off for a rehearsal or sound check,” she says on her website bio. “I can stay and chat, and it feels great.”
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Anne Murray’s web site (accessed July 2015)
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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