October 2012

Michelle Murray: Terminally Positive

Author: Michael Paskevich | Photographer: PE Photogrpahy

It’s a balancing act that could easily lead many to distraction or worse, yet Michelle Murray somehow sounds poised and on-beam despite the diverse directions life takes her every day. And making her living as a country singer just might be the easiest aspect of existence for a woman with deep local ties and a seemingly steadfast commitment to achieving more than stardom.

Fellow multi-taskers should take note of Murray’s recent résumé of accomplishments that include touring steadily with her husband/manager, Tom, their trio of pre-teens and an all-dude backup band on a bus that’s logged more than 40,000 miles in a year. The entourage intends to hit the road again for a return to the Lowcountry for early November concerts in Savannah and Bluffton with plans for another cross-country tour next year; starring in a 2010 film documentary, My Finish Line, which highlights a growing friendship with quadriplegic former Indy racecar driver Sam Schmidt and Murray’s role as lead spokesperson for his non-profit paralysis foundation; and co-producing and currently pitching a would-be TV reality show, Long Road to Fame, which details the gentle rigors of family life on the road mixed with performance clips of her latest single, a tongue-in-cheek country rocker entitled, “Love Me Like You Love Your Truck.”

“I truly like to do as many different things as I can,” Murray said, “and I know there are people who are driven but also go through rough periods when they try to force things to make them happen. I feel when you do that, there’s a strong chance you’ll burn out. You can only control so much, and you have to be thankful and grateful for what you already have.”

Murray’s tale begins in a Chicago suburb where she was born into the highly musical Snyder family and eagerly stepped up to sing in a neighborhood church at the age of five. “I’ve always loved to sing in front of people,” she said. “I just enjoy the interactive nature of it, and I quickly learned to always sing with a smile in my heart.” Community theater, karaoke and commercial jingles followed.

This becomes a love story when, on a 1997 spring break trek to Hilton Head with her family, the 19-year-old (“still in my bikini”) was easily cajoled to sing onstage with a since-forgotten musician at the Sea Pines Beach Club. A local lad, Thomas Murray III, was smitten by her looks and sturdy soprano, introducing himself and somehow managing to turn up just about everywhere she went over the rest of her vacation.

“It was actually a little bit creepy at first,” she said. “I kept running into him everywhere, and he seemed so much older (seven years) than me.” But Tom, a Sea Pines real estate broker and reserve deputy for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department was undaunted by her initial reluctance. “I finally got to know him by the next weekend and, well, that’s how it all got started. I ended up moving to Hilton Head.”

The courtship continued, and the two were married the next year no matter Michelle’s ongoing adjustment from life in an urban city to more rural climes. “I took a big chance and it took me a long time to just get used to the accents, but I ended up loving it,” she said. “It was such a small community then. I remember three gas stations, two grocery stores and there was no Cross Island Parkway. Pineland Station was the only shopping center.”

There were enough places for her to sing, however, and Murray set up shop in clubs and outdoors at Coligny Plaza along with the Sea Pines Welcome Center, honing her chops and starting to absorb the distinct flavor of Southern music she earlier had eschewed. “When I moved down, I was doing more pop stuff, but I started listening more to country stations and hearing artists like Tracy Byrd and Michael Montgomery,” she said. “I loved them, but I didn’t grow up with them.”

In what she calls a “slow but natural transition,” Murray started leaning south and fusing country elements into her act, leading her to opening-act engagements with bigger bands touring Georgia and the Carolinas. Another transition, one to motherhood, coincided, and her first two children were born at Hilton Head Hospital where Tom’s mom, Therese, helped open the obstetrics unit some 30 years ago. “She was there to help with both deliveries, and I remember times at shows nursing one of them between sets and then getting back on the stage.”

Major record labels began to take notice, and in 2004, the couple decided to roll the dice and set out for Franklin, Tennessee, about 30 miles from Nashville, the home and heart of modern country music. “We just had to be here where there’s music piping out of every corner,” Murray said by phone. “The community is really remarkable, and because there are so many other artists around (Sheryl Crow is a neighbor) it’s made life easier for our kids. Some people go for homeschooling, but we want to socialize them by having them in public school.”

The youngsters are with them on the touring bus, which serves as the backdrop for the proposed TV reality show, Long Road to Fame, featuring the family and band as they travel to gigs at raceways and other venues across the country. The show is likely a longshot for prime time as it lacks the hysterical edges and phony dramatics America has come to expect from the tiring genre—there are extended scenes of the

Murrays simply chatting on a couch—but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “There’s already so much drama out there, and we didn’t want something invasive where the camera is following us into the bathroom and the bedroom. It’s really just about life on the road,” she said.

A tour stop at a racetrack in 2008 led to Murray’s friendship with injured former Indy racer Sam Schmidt that forms the basis of the documentary, My Finish Line, and led to her ongoing role as a lead spokesperson for his Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation. “He’s an amazing person and has survived some rough years,” she said. “But he keeps battling and has a goal of being able to dance with his daughter at her wedding.”

Murray laughs off a suggestion that she’s terminally upbeat. “I don’t have typical artist mood swings,” she said, “and I like to stay positive. I mean, I’m often on a bus with 14 people, so that’s really important. Lots of the time the guys act more like divas than I do.” She credits her quiet faith and rigorous daily exercise for helping her maintain her roles as a mother, performer and businesswoman.

And with all of the kids now in school, she’s taking on added tasks such as more songwriting, regular visits to children’s hospitals and giving occasional vocal lessons. She also maintains no less than seven online access sites—she’s the fifth most popular Twitter user in the Nashville area—and has over 50,000 followers around the world.

“Keeping busy helps me stay motivated,” she said. “I do feel blessed, and we’ve done exactly what we’ve wanted to do. Sure, some doors have been slammed, and maybe we could have gone further and landed on a label. But I don’t regret a thing. I feel like my kids are happy, Tom and I are happy, and we all get to be together.”

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