Photo courtesy of Bill McClintic of 90 East Photography.
The first time I saw Kevin Murphy play drums was at an outdoor amphitheater in Virginia, his home state. He was perched atop a riser, high above the stage, and surrounded by a massive drum kit. At the time, I had no idea he called his kit Thunderdome. It couldn’t have a more appropriate name. Five minutes into his playing that night, I felt transported to an AC/DC concert, rocked by the eruptive power of “Thunderstruck.” It took me a few minutes to get my bearings and remember that I was at a country music concert and Randy Houser was on stage. Randy, himself, is no diminutive presence, but this drummer was commanding his own space. I didn’t wait for the show to be over to ask who this guy was. I used my drummer lifeline, tweeted a friend, and got his name…@bigrightfoot.
I’d only heard the name ‘Thunderdome’ as part of the movie title, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, released almost 30 years ago. Max was a gladiator and Thunderdome was an arena for such participants who resolved their conflicts by dueling to the death. The rule: “Two men enter; one man leaves.” Who knew that Nashville would be the oasis for Max’s musician counterpart, Kevin Murphy, and that Thunderdome would become a place where this gladiator duels with the music….and always walks away the victor. Aunty Entity, ruler of Bartertown in the movie, eyed Max up skeptically and proclaimed him, “Just a raggedy man.” Make that mistake with Kevin Murphy and you’ll have missed the rough poetic genius behind all that musical muscle.
Kevin was born with a natural gift for music that would take years (and his parents’ sometimes-reluctant moral support) to fight its way to being a conscious career dream. By the age of 12, the drummer inside him was looking for something to hit – anything. He started out hitting a bucket and spent hours starring in his own air drum performances in his room. Living in a rural area of Virginia, he didn’t even see his first drum kit until he got to high school. When he sat down behind it for the first time, he played Men At Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” He’d never had a lesson or even a real drum set to practice on. He says it wasn’t great, but recognizable. From that moment, he knew he’d found a place where he could raise some hell and hopefully not kill himself in the process. Admittedly a hellion at that age, drumming provided a safe harbor. His first kit was no one’s ideal, but it satisfied his need to have “anything to hit on” and he said once he got it, that’s all he did for years. Describing himself as a lonely kid, drumming gave him something to pour his feelings into and develop a relationship with on a primal level.
At 16, Kevin had the last in a series of car accidents that nearly killed him. His parents’ reaction was to relocate him to Northern Virginia to live with his grandparents with the hope that his out of control lifestyle wouldn’t follow him there. Feeling like a nomad anyway, the move didn’t bother him. He would now have a new playground on which to satisfy his urge for excitement and something new to partake of. In the movie, when Mad Max does something to displease the ruler, she exiles him to a desert wasteland where he is forced to dig deep to survive. Kevin’s move in the middle of high school forced a similar introspection. He saw himself at that time as a poor student who wasn’t smart enough to do anything else but play drums. Narrowly defining oneself is common among teens and Kevin saw only one direction leading out of the desert. In his eyes, drumming was the only thing that made him interesting to talk to, and girls started paying attention to him. At the end of high school, he saw only one option, and he took it.
East Tennessee State was the only college Kevin got accepted to and the only one he would need. They wanted him to play drums there and he studied under the direction of Rande Sanderbeck. His instructor seemed to know him better than he knew himself at that time and over the next three years, he nurtured his playing and prepared him for the direction in which he already knew he would go. Rande gave him the confidence and the improved skills to turn his passion into a career choice and convince his parents that he was making the right decision to leave college and pursue music. In that conversation, they posed the question of how he would turn an abstract music dream into a successful job. For a musician, how do you define “making it?”
When Mad Max set out on his own to recover what had been taken from him, he started with nothing but sheer will and determination. Kevin jumped right into the fire. He went straight from college to touring in a van with a band. The nomadic lifestyle he’d grown accustomed to would serve him well as a touring musician. His resume over the next decade would be built on touring well over 200 days per year with a number of different bands including Full Stop, Egypt, Earth to Andy, Jimmie’s Chicken Shack, and Tonic. Though the sound of each of these bands was variable, Kevin’s drum style was always imposing. The music allowed for such, and in most cases, demanded it. Mathematical interpretation was not required or desired. His playing was right at home in the “nail everything to the floor and play as violently as possible” wheelhouse, as it was with Egypt and Jimmie’s Chicken Shack. He spent 11 years touring with Tonic and filling in with other bands when the opportunity presented itself. Networking is crucial in the music business to building a lifelong career and often essential for paying the bills.
With the rock bands Kevin played in over the years, he had the latitude to bring his style of play to work every day. Despite what many think of playing music for a living, it is a job like most others. Not all aspects of it are glamorous, and how well you succeed at it depends on how much you put into it. Kevin’s take on playing music for a living is that musicians are always searching for something they can’t seem to find; looking to fix something that’s probably broken inside. He says you have to be overly driven to do this for a living and my conversations with musicians would absolutely support that notion. When they’re not on tour, they’re usually doing something else related to music. Session work is a good time filler, resume builder, and networking gold mine. A single recording session could turn into that future big gig. The trouble is, the more you tour, the less you’re at home and available for such work. Eventually, people just assume you’re gone and stop asking.
Production work is another avenue many musicians take to expand their creative opportunities, especially drummers. I asked Kevin what it is about drummers that seems to make them such outstanding producers. He’s done a fair amount of production work, including producing an album (Redemption) for country singer, Josh Gracin. From their position on the stage, especially as high as Kevin sits, the drummer is the only person in the building who can see and hear everything that happens. He has a comprehensive view from up there, and in order to keep things moving in proper time, he has an input for all surrounding sounds. It’s his job to listen to the little things and correct anything that goes astray, should something get off track. He says it’s not a big jump to having a comprehensive view for an entire album. Like taking what drummers do naturally on stage and doing that same job in the recording studio, only with a lot more creative leeway. The only problem with production work is the same as with session work; the more you tour, the process can stall very quickly and opportunities become fewer. As Kevin puts it, “I’m better in a studio than I am live, but in Nashville I’m known for touring.”
The trail that Mad Max followed in the movie led to a seedy community called Bartertown, where there was a gatekeeper who wouldn’t let you in unless you had something to trade. For our purposes, let’s just call this town Nashville. Kevin made the jump to country music with a full resume. He was a successful tour musician with a style that no one could imitate, moving to a genre that wasn’t exactly known for bolting drum kits to the floor for their own protection. Until you make a connection with someone and get hired for steady work, the Nashville job scene for musicians isn’t much more than being a day laborer for country artists. You may do shows for friends or a little subbing here and there, but it often takes an old acquaintance to get your foot in the door somewhere. Kevin got hired by Randy Houser in 2010 to play drums for a couple of months. It wasn’t that Randy wasn’t happy with him, but he’d promised to give his best friend a shot at being a tour musician and he was ready to assume that role. After eight or nine months, Kevin was called back and asked if he was interested in rejoining Randy’s touring band. This says a lot about Randy Houser, and Kevin Murphy. There aren’t many country artists who have the guts to put unique and powerful personalities on the stage with them. Kevin’s playing isn’t designed for a confined space any more than his personality is. Randy experienced Kevin’s playing for two months, and later invited him back. For Kevin, being able to play his explosive style of drumming isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. He’s not going to tone it down and lose himself in a darkened corner of a stage. He wanted back in. “I feel at home with Randy and the guys.” The fact that Randy and Kevin recognized something unusual in each other, is what has created the most confrontational band in country music. As Aunty Entity says to Max at the end of the movie, when she spares his life because she’s grown to respect him, “Well, ain’t we a pair…raggedy man.”
Kevin’s drum kit was nicknamed ‘Thunderdome’ some time ago by friends who’ve obviously witnessed what happens there. When he climbs the steps to sit behind that massive kit – that IS bolted to the floor – he is a man at work in an extraordinary office. His presence is meant to be an imposing thing and his job is to move you on a primal level. His drumming “should make you want to do one of three things – dance, f***, or fight” – (sorry, but that line was just too good not to use). Randy’s job is to further define those feelings through the lyrics of a song and his incredible vocal delivery, in Kevin’s opinion, but the primal stuff starts with him. Kevin Murphy is a gladiator whose weapon of choice is his drum kit. He attacks each performance like his very life depends on the sound he creates. Depending on the set list, it can be bone crushing, heart stopping, or jaw dropping in its intensity. He didn’t arrive at this place by being lucky. He’s here because he’s done a lot in his 20 years in the industry. He comes prepared to do his job, even on short notice, and even when the job he’s been asked to do isn’t his.
The second time I saw Kevin Murphy on stage was just recently inside Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore. I thought I was prepared this time for what he was capable of and knew what to expect from a Randy Houser set. Not even close. I couldn’t have been more surprised if they’d launched a grenade in my direction, which in effect, they did. The reach of Kevin’s drumming pulled the entire arena into the duel happening inside of it. The power of the music and Randy’s vocal ferocity were a force the audience couldn’t match, try as we might. Sitting atop this mighty onslaught was Kevin Murphy, smoke surrounding him and Thunderdome barely visible through the haze. The audience was in a frenzy, and defeat never felt so good. For a musician, THIS is when you know you’ve “made it.” When people leave the arena and can’t stop talking about your performance, nor can they wait for the next one, you are officially a damn good drummer. It’s not the venue that makes the musician. The musician creates a venue with his playing. Wherever he is, Kevin Murphy gives us Thunderdome – the ultimate drum arena.
Note: As much as we think that Kevin and Randy Houser should never be separated, should AC/DC request his presence on their 2015 tour, we will prepare ourselves to be THUNDERSTRUCK – BEYOND THUNDERDOME! Angus Young, meet Kevin Murphy! Angus and everyone else can hit him up on twitter @bigrightfoot.
From WAY NORTH of NASHVILLE…Bev Miskus
Covering our #countrymusicnation.
All of the pictures in this article are courtesy of Bill McClintic of 90 East Photography. To view more of his incredible work and for professional inquiries, please visit his website: http://www.90eastphotography.com/home.html
Follow Kevin on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bigrightfoot
Follow Kevin on Instagram: http://instagram.com/bigrightfoot
Subscribe to Kevin’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheBigrightfoot
When Kevin isn’t heating up the stage with his drumming, he teams up with a couple of friends to make an artisan hot sauce/condiment that is sure to bring the heat with a hint of sweet! Mad Hatter Foods’ Habanero Pineapple Sauce is a super-condiment that will compliment most any food. Check out their wonderland of innovative sauces here: http://store.madhatterfoods.com/
A Kevin Murphy interview couldn’t simply take place over the phone. It demanded a unique vantage point from behind Thunderdome and center stage at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore. Drummers really do have the best seat in the house and the view from center stage is a pretty awesome thing. Thanks Kevin, for an unforgettable interview!