Looking back at Murphy Center’s musical history
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
By Brinley Hineman, Studio M staff //
Since 1973, Murphy Center, located on Middle Tennessee State University’s campus, has created history in Murfreesboro. Elvis Presley performed four sold-out shows there. Musical legends such as Elton John, The Who, Eagles, Journey left their legacy behind in the small town.
On Nov. 17, 1987, Fleetwood Mac headlined a show at Murphy Center, which had become the epicenter of Murfreesboro. That very same week, Whitney Houston and U2 performed shows at Murphy Center as well.
“It was really amazing to get to attend and then cover or work at any event like the series of concerts that were hosted in Murphy Center,” said Neal Eaton, a former Middle Tennessee State University student who graduated in 1989 with a degree in graphic design. Today, he is an apparel designer at GameGuard Outdoors. Eaton recalls the 30-year-old experience with fondness.
In the ‘80s, Murfreesboro was a lackadaisical farm town, yet it pulled some of the most maverick rock acts headlining today’s biggest shows to perform at the height of their musical careers. Today, the ever-growing city bustles with dreaded traffic and new businesses popping up each week.
“It was so popular because of the seating arrangements and spacing for venue set-up,” said Abigail Stapler, the concert planner for MTSU Student Programming. “ Other than professional music venues or Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Murphy Center is the only venue in Murfreesboro of its size that allows for a large-scale concert.”
In 1987, Nashville had two major venues: Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman, which is hailed today as one of the most historical music locales in the country, was running dry in the ‘80s due largely to the venue falling into a state of disrepair. From 1979 to 1984, only five concerts were held in this aged building, with the biggest name to take the stage being Dolly Parton. In that same five-year span, 34 performances were held at Murphy Center. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that the Ryman stole the stage from Murphy Center as the premier venue.
Part of the Ryman’s rise to success was being acquired by the Gaylord Entertainment Group in 1983. While it would still be a number of years before the venue saw frequent shows once more, it was in the early ‘80s that changes began to occur inside the Ryman’s historic walls. Plans for renovations were launched, and by 1989, the roof was repaired along with the aged woodwork and broken windows. While walking through the landmark today, the restored building is breathtaking, which is exactly what brought concertgoers to that stage. Live radio shows, movies and more have since been filmed on the historic stage. The legends of the Ryman paired with its aesthetic are enough to pull any songwriter in; Johnny Cash even met his wife June backstage during a performance.
Patsy Cline took up residency in the Ryman Auditorium, pulling a crowd from Murfreesboro and beyond. By June 1994 when “Always… Patsy Cline” began its 67-show run, Murphy Center’s popularity was on the decline. While many performances took place in Murphy, a sharp drop is noted after the grand re-opening of the Ryman which took place in May 1994, just one month before Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman launched.
By 1996, concerts had slowed down considerably, aligning with the opening of Bridgestone Arena – formerly known as Nashville Arena – in Nashville. Prior to the construction of Bridgestone, Murphy Center was the largest venue in Middle Tennessee. That wasn’t the case after the late-’90s, however. Bridgestone Arena’s seating clocked in at nearly 20,000 open spots for a concert, whereas Murphy Center only had an available 6,000 seats for concert attendees.
The driving force behind Murphy Center’s prior success was MTSU Student Programming.
“There was a Student Programming team that helped to pick the artists and then run the events in many different ways … selling tickets, ushers (and) concessions,” Eaton said. “I was a member of that team along with being on the staff of both Sidelines and The Midlander.”
MTSU Student Programming, operating today as MTSU Student Programming and Raider Entertainment, is responsible for pulling the strings behind some of MTSU’s biggest events each year, such as the school’s concerts.
However, the shows aren’t as exciting as they used to be. When Eaton was in school, some of the biggest names in the industry were pulling up their tour buses into the MTSU parking lot, offering shows that were easily accessible and affordable — Eaton said the U2 show cost about $17 a ticket.
Today, while tickets are still affordable, Murphy Center hasn’t seen an A-list musician in nearly a decade. The last big-name act they scheduled was Kanye West in 2005, despite MTSU’s Student Government Association passing the 546 Initiative which vowed to bring back Murphy Center’s glory days by booking popular artists.
“One of our goals for Signature Events, as well as to provide great entertainment for MTSU, is to bring Murphy Center back to its full potential,” Stapler said.
2005 was Murphy Center’s last big hoorah, bringing Kanye West to the spotlight. After that performance, it would be two more years before another band graced the center’s stage: . Widespread Panic. Seven more years passed before another performance; once again, Widespread Panic played.
“The folks that are big enough to really reach all fans play in much larger venues with much larger revenues,” Eaton said. “I believe that some spaces have a feeling that is very organic and genuine and facilitate great performances,” Eaton said. “In my opinion, Murphy Center was – is one of those.”
Students remain hopeful, however, that someday Murphy Center will once more become Murfreesboro’s home for local music. Current students take it upon themselves to bring bigger acts back to Murphy Center. Last year, Icona Pop was brought to Murphy’s stage with the help of MTSU Student Government Association and SPARE; that same year, Ludacris performed as well. However, neither performance pulled a notable crowd. Regardless, Stapler remains hopeful that with enough perseverance, Murphy Center can one day regain its role as Middle Tennessee’s home for live music.
“We are in the process of planning another large show for the spring, and I can’t reveal any more than that,” Stapler said. However, Stapler confirmed that the musician’s identity would be dropped sooner than later.
Brinley Hineman is a senior majoring in journalism at Middle Tennessee State University.
Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.