Written by Donna Baker, University Archivist
It is not unusual for archivists to get attached to their collections. When you are the University Archivist, you can get attached to a particular place and protective of the people associated with that place. Whether I am conscious of it or not, I am looking out for connections to the institution I archive. For me, no matter where I am, even on vacation, Middle Tennessee State University and Murfreesboro are always in the back on my mind. For example, on the Cayamo cruise this year while watching Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin perform, a story brought MTSU immediately into my focus.
Mr. Earle told the audience the origin story about Guitar Town. Guitar Town was not just Steve Earle’s debut album, but also is considered one of the 500 greatest albums ever by Rolling Stone. He explained that he had written the songs on the album after watching Bruce Springsteen in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He had gone home 4 hours later (a joke about the marathon that is a Springsteen show) and wrote most the songs on the album.
Murfreesboro? He could have only seen Bruce Springsteen at Murphy Center on the campus of MTSU. Did he camp out with the others for tickets, or did a friend get him a ticket? These thoughts kept cycling through my brain. After vacation, when I got back to the Albert Gore Research Center, I tried to write a blog post about this. I struggled with this post through March, which was the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Guitar Town. I finally set this aside to wait on a sunny day to finish it. “Someday,” I thought, and went on with the business of archiving MTSU.
It has been thirty-two years this month since Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played at Murphy Center. This was in the middle of the Born in the U.S.A tour, and Murphy Center was the only venue in the immediate area at that time that could handle the size and intensity of a Springsteen show. University Archives materials help tell the story of this event. The “Bruce Springsteen” file in the Student Programming Records is a half-inch thick, with one draft of the show rider alone being 29 pages. We learn about staging and promotion of this show from these files, including just how complicated it was for Harold Smith, Director of Student Programming, to bring Springsteen to Murfreesboro. We learn from this file that there was a strict “No Camera” rule that applied to everyone, including MTSU’s own staff photographer. No detail was overlooked to ensure “the intimacy of a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performance.”
The student newspaper, Sidelines, reported that some people camped out for weeks to get tickets. In an article from 7 December 1984, a mother is quoted as saying to her son, “Why would you camp out three days for a concert? Who is this guy?”
In the same article, there is speculation about the set list, suggesting that “Jungleland” (from Born To Run) would be replaced by his famous rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
As the Fall semester ended right after the concert, the review of the show had to wait until January 1985. The article can only hint at the show Steve Earle saw that night. To quote the article:
Few performers dare to say something substantial with their music, especially if it steps on someone’s toes, but Springsteen does more. He not only awakens the public to controversial themes, he packages his ideas in an ingenious musical presentation for impact, and the fans eat it up.
I am an archivist, not a music critic, so I am not quite qualified to compare the political and controversial implications of Steve Earle’s oeuvre to Bruce Springsteen’s. (Something tells me that both Mr. Earle and Mr. Springsteen would hate that anyway.) What is important to me is not how much Springsteen’s work influenced Earle’s output on Guitar Town, but how this specific event impacted Steve Earle artistically. Had Murphy Center not hosted The Boss, Mr. Earle might have tried to see him in Birmingham, Memphis, or Atlanta. Still, the logistical challenges to get to those shows might have been too much to overcome for a yet-unknown artist. He could have missed the show, and his debut album would have been a different creation.
For a time, MTSU was able to bring famous acts such as Bob Hope, Elton John, and Elvis to its students and community with this facility. Gone are the big concerts staged at Murphy Center, though it sees its share of activities and events. While there is only one Steve Earle, who knows how many others were inspired to create and dream by the artists who performed at Murphy Center?