Student, Air Force vet writes songs that tell his story
Freshman Johnny Cole Murdock grew up listening to country music, but really fell in love with guitar the first time he heard the California-based heavy metal band Metallica.
“I didn’t know you could play guitar like that,” Murdock said. “At that point, I wanted to play.”
Murdock taught himself guitar in approximately three months, though he described his skill with the instrument as a “continual learning process.” He continued to play after high school, in between 16-hour shifts as a maintenance team chief of intercontinental ballistic missiles with the United States Air Force. In his time off, he would play at local venues near base, including a small bar called The Poorhouse and an Irish-style pub called Ebeneezer’s.
“I was always working,” Murdock said. “But occasionally, the stars would align, and I would be able to play somewhere, and it was really enjoyable. I loved it.”
After six years in the Air Force, Murdock came to Hillsdale College in the fall of 2018. He originally planned to study chemistry, but his passion for songwriting and performing led him to add a music major as well. In addition to his studies, Murdock makes time to rock out at local venues at least twice a month, playing an eclectic mix of classic country music and metallica, which his friends called “Texas country rock ‘n’ roll.”
“When he’s up on stage, he does the job of a couple guys,” senior Corinne Prost described. “He’s very talented with his guitar.”
Murdock named Lynryd Skynyrd, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings as some of his biggest influences but said his love of music started before he heard the greats.
“I think like a lot of people, singing in church was a starting point, as a kid, growing up. It’s always been there,” Murdock explained.
In an effort to get plugged into the local music scene, Murdock has played at Pub ‘n’ Grub and the Hillsdale Brewing Company on multiple occasions, as well as Rough Draft. In December, he had already begun booking dates for the spring semester, including some venues outside of Hillsdale, to broaden his reach.
His music also reached across the street to Prost’s house, which was how they met each other.
“He had such a unique voice that I thought, ‘I want to go introduce myself to the neighbors, and especially the person that’s singing,’” Prost said. “I looked at my friends, we were sitting on my porch, and I said, ‘I’m going to go make that house banana bread.’ I guess my banana bread was good enough that they came over later to introduce themselves.”
Murdock explained that he had not heard of Hillsdale until about a year before he arrived, and originally planned to go to school in Texas after leaving the military, to be close to his home. Hillsdale’s mission statement, however, changed that plan.
“Reading the thing about teaching citizens for self-government really struck a chord with me,” Murdock said. “So I started looking into what Hillsdale is about, and to me it seemed like a real light shining in the darkness. While a lot of college campuses are trying to impose and indoctrinate people into certain beliefs, it’s just teaching people to think for themselves.”
For Murdock, what’s most important is making sure he doesn’t limit himself.
“I want to push myself to do something more,” he said. “At least for me personally, any time I’m comfortable, it makes me uncomfortable. I always want to push myself to be a little bit better.”
As a result, despite having left the military, Murdock still pursues physically challenging hobbies, including kickboxing and martial arts. Sophomore Cassie Moran said she got to know Murdock because they went to the gym together.
“Some people worked out with us at times, but they didn’t want to work out as much as we did,” Moran said, laughing.
Prost said Murdock, despite his focus and discipline, doesn’t shy from enjoying the good things in life, and is “surprisingly light-hearted.”
“Any time he has something good in front of him, whether it’s a movie, or a donut — anything, really — he’ll just look at it and say, ‘You know what? I deserve this,’” Prost said. “It’s both funny, and it’s also kind of sweet, just because it’s such a positive thing to say. That’s one of my favorite things about him. I’ve never seen it not make someone laugh. A good cup of coffee in his hands? ‘I deserve this.’”
But it’s songwriting that Murdock pours the most energy into, and he said his goal is to tell “real stories,” the ones that speak to him.
“Recently, I wrote a really good song that talks about my life. It talks about having struggles in life, but all of those struggles lead you to someone that you love, and brought you together, which made it worth it in the end. I think those are the more happy songs to sing, the ones about love, because at the end of the day, love is what matters. Everything else will pass away, but love is forever,” he said.
Prost described Murdock’s songs as a reflection of himself, and as a result, they are “a gift to himself and a gift to others.”
“He tells me his music really reflects some of the things that are hard to talk about,” Prost said. “Sometimes music replaces words.”