George Murtie didn’t expect to be here.
Here, in this dark auditorium, hiding from the adoring gaze of a most familiar audience.
They’ve known him for years as “captain” or “dad” or simply “George,” back when he held a rank and a badge. But this was a different George Murtie. One who grows his hair out and posts on Facebook. Who pulls up to seedy bars armed with a guitar, not a gun.
For the next hour, he sang about that former life: about decades as a cop, about living in this great state, about his adoring wife and the fear of missing out.
But right now, the 61-year-old is in no rush, and no one seems to care that he’s 10 minutes late. He baths in the blue tint of a stage light, his cowboy hat shadowing his face. He closes his eyes and breathes, taking his time, because he’s waited long for moments like this.
That Murtie is only eight months into his retirement is hard to believe. He’s already trekked down and back from Florida, hitting open mics and jam sessions, and he just finished recording his first album, “My Next Last Chance.” Arriving a day before the show, copies of the record sat outside the concert hall next to a construction paper sign reading, “George’s CDs.”
“It’s been wild,” he said of his retirement, a large grin on his face.
Through it all has been Murtie’s wife of 43 years, Linda. The two met as 15-year-olds, married a few years later and, as she puts it, have been a team ever since. Like when Murtie would wake her up at 2 in the morning to go over his shift that night. Or when Linda would place a sign on the front door reading, “Shh, George is sleeping.”
“If one of us couldn’t do it, the other fixes it. We go together,” Linda said over the phone en route to Nashville, where the Murties will stay for a few months touring the open mic circuit and meeting with music professionals.
Linda has become Murtie’s de-facto manager. She posts and analyzes his social media accounts, tracking clicks from around the globe. She plots their performance schedule and makes sure the paperwork gets in on time.
“I haven’t retired,” she joked. “I got a new job.” But she’s glad to do it, because Murtie has been there for so many challenging times.
Linda was diagnosed with lupus over 25 years ago and has had several bouts with stomach cancer over the years. The most recent diagnosis occurred just before Christmas. They spent the next few months in Boston as Linda recovered from surgery.
She felt terrible about it: First she convinces him to retire, to finally pursue his dream, and then she puts their plans on pause. Murtie didn’t see it that way.
“He’s so laid back, acting like it’s no big deal,” she said. Plus, it would give him time to write, and write he did: Murtie raced through more than 15 songs over the winter and spring, far more than Linda had ever seen him finish.
Linda is again cancer-free and supposed to take a year to heal, “but there’s no way I was going to make him wait,” she said.
Her perseverance hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“We’ve shared everything together,” Murtie said. “It’s kind of overwhelming that she wants me to go out and do this.”
Murtie describes his music as a mix of country and folk. He prefers to write true stories, like “Dr. Elizabeth,” a song about a homeless woman Murtie met on the force. Or “Vermont Is Country,” in which Murtie stops off at Indian Brook Reservoir during the midnight shift to watch the northern lights.
Other songs are a bit more tongue-in-cheek, like “Whiskey and Women,” which finds Murtie crooning about spending his whole life chasing after the two titular characters. (“It’s a country song, but it’s so not me,” he said.)
He enjoys open mics, noting most people who show up are in a good mood. It can be entertaining, too, he said, a clear euphemism.
“Some of the bars you play in, they’re not places I would have hung out back in the day,” he said.
Murtie never considered making money off his dream. Even now, he doesn’t seem to have much interest in fame. He defers praise and said he’s surprised at the feedback he’s received. He likes performing because he believes music is a universal language. He thought his album sounded “pretty good,” and he’s heading to Nashville to “see what happens.”
“I’m having a ball,” he said. “As long as we stay healthy, things are looking up.” But his passion has inspired those around him, like former colleague Cpl. Kurt Miglinas, who saw Murtie live for the first time last month.
“You can tell when he plays, it’s part of him. It means something to him,” he said.
Or Murtie’s daughter, Elizabeth Gates, who traveled from Plattsburgh to attend. She said even though her dad has played guitar as long as she can remember, she had no idea he would make it to this point.
“It’s amazing. It really is. It’s kind of unbelievable,” she said.
The only person who doesn’t seem surprised by Murtie’s success is Linda. She’s experienced his dedication for years, how he would use comp time mid-shift to come learn a new procedure she’d need. How he keeps an alarm on his phone that reminds him every four hours that it’s time to do her injections.
“I have no idea,” she said.
A red light paints the stage at the Burlington Black Box Theatre on a warm Wednesday evening last month. Murtie lingers for a bit longer behind the curtain. First, it’s Linda’s turn.
She tells a couple stories and chats about their marriage, about how they do argue every now and then, of course, but also how she can’t tell you anything bad about her husband, even if she tried.
“What you actually see is what you actually get,” she said, a mantra over the years.
She cracks a few jokes – thank God he gave up the piano as a kid, she says, because lugging all this equipment here was hard enough – and she slips in the part Murtie won’t: There are tip jars by the door.
Murtie finally ambles out to the stage. A tan vest covers his button-up shirt, the sleeves rolled to his elbows, a signature cowboy hat on his head. He helps Linda slide the microphone back into its stand and grabs one of the few guitars around the stage. He plucks some notes, testing the waters, looking out at his family and friends.
He thanks them all for coming, says it means a lot and vows to do his best. He holds on to the moment as long as he can.
“I wrote some of these songs,” he says, as if it’s no big deal. As if we all write songs and still dream. “I hope you like them.”