Music Man: An Interview with Mormon Composer Merrell Jenson


The “Cougar Fight Song” has inspired a lot of ball teams and students during its years as the official spirit-booster at Brigham Young University. But what most fans don’t know is that it was also the inspiration for the Music to Take Down, a motion picture about a high school wrestling team that went from chumps to champs because of a determined coach. The composer for that film was Merrell Jenson, a dark-haired, energetic musician from Provo, Utah, who describes writing the music as one of the many faith-promoting experiences of his career. In addition to Take Down, he has written the music for the movies Indian, Cry to the Wind, Three Warriors, and Harry’s War, and 21 BYU films including The First Vision, John Baker’s Last Race, and Where Jesus Walked. He has also composed music for the television release of The Great Brain, (an Osmond production), and the Oakland Temple pageant. Recently the New Era interviewed him with his wife Betsy in their home in Provo, Utah. (They have four children.) Following are some of his comments concerning his career, background, and future ambitions.

The New Era: Brother Jenson, would you tell us a little about your boyhood in southern Utah?

Merrell: Yes, I was a farmboy in Richfield and an only child, and consequently I grew up quite close to my parents. I remember riding on the tractor and walking in the muddy fields with my father as he irrigated when I was only three years old. At four I got my first job driving cows, which meant taking them out to pasture for the day. From that time until I moved away from home, I spent a good deal of my time in the fields, and it was there that I learned lessons and values that have sustained me throughout my life. However, at the same time I was developing interests in both music and athletics, with the full support of my mother and father.

The New Era: What are some of the values you attribute to having worked on the farm?

Merrell: Well, I gained a feeling of self-worth and determination to do my best. For example, while still in elementary school, I worked long hours in the hayfields, cutting and raking, and sometimes I would run into difficulties that would cut into my productivity. But no matter how many or how few rows I had cut, when my father came out to see my work in the evening, he would say, “Boy, Merrell, you got a lot accomplished! Did you get all that done while I was gone?” I was convinced I was the fastest cutter in the valley! I don’t know if I really was or not, but my father always made me feel that way.

Another value I learned through farming was honesty. When we rented a farm from someone, the payment was generally 50 percent of what we made off the land. My dad always gave the owners the best 50 percent and usually a little bit over. When I saw him doing this, I would say, “Let’s make it even. Let’s count every bale.” But dad would say, “Ah, give them a little bit extra; they deserve it.”

Another quality my father taught me was that of trustworthiness. When I was just barely a teenager, he would send me into town on errands. He never said, “Now remember, don’t go any further; don’t ruin the truck,” etc. He just said, “Could you get me some silage?” And I went and got the silage. It didn’t even dawn on me until years later that maybe I could have taken a spin up around the foothills or gone on into Salina and had some fun!

The New Era: How did you become interested in music?

Merrell: Both my parents were musically inclined and encouraged me to develop my own talents. My mother began giving me piano lessons when I was about five years old, and my father started teaching me the trumpet shortly after that. I joined the school band, but at first I shied away from doing solos of any kind. My mother used to try to get me to go to Relief Society and play for the sisters. She would say, “When I was in Drammen (Norway), my mother used to be proud of me because I would go and play for the Relief Society. Couldn’t you do that for me so I could be proud?” I just told her to forget it and I quit taking piano lessons and everything for a while! Mother wanted me to be an example and I didn’t want to—I just wanted to be a regular person. But she never quit encouraging me.

Something else I learned from my mother was to pray before every performance. Together we prayed that what I had learned I would remember, that my fingers would be guided to play the right notes, and that I would feel the inspiration of what was intended in that particular piece of music. Afterwards, we would thank Heavenly Father for helping me to have a good performance. Mother instilled in me the understanding that we should not forget him after it was all over but should again give thanks for the wonderful opportunity we had been given.

The New Era: How do you keep the success you have enjoyed in the proper perspective?

Merrell: I keep in mind that music is a talent the Lord has given me and that he will use it and me to help the kingdom if I stay close to him. Again I have to interject a comment about my mother. On one occasion when I was writing the score for Indian, I was back at Richfield and the recording engineer called to see how it was coming. I said, “It’s going great, just fantastic! You’ll love this sequence!” I went on and on, and afterwards my mother said to me, “Merrell, we never brag about ourselves; we never tell how good we are.” I said, “They’re putting out 20 thousand dollars just to record it. They want to know how it’s coming along.” She said, “Just remember that you shouldn’t become too boastful because the Lord won’t bless you.” I try to remember that—the Lord isn’t pleased if we’re too boastful. We should show thankfulness.

The New Era: What role has music played in your opportunity to do missionary work?

Merrell: I was 15 when I received my patriarchal blessing, and it said that music would enable me to unlock doors that would otherwise remain closed, and that I would have a great influence on the world through music. Within a few years things began to happen to me that made its meaning more clear. I was called on a full-time mission to Norway and played in a musical group for eight months while there. I’ve been back from Norway 11 years now, and members from there still tell me of youth who are going on missions because they were influenced by our group and of members who went out and did missionary work after listening to us. While I was in the group, I missed the opportunity to do direct proselyting and had to remind myself that you can do missionary work in other ways. Now I can see more clearly the fruits of those labors.

The New Era: What opportunities has your career opened up in the way of missionary work?

Merrell: Since returning from my mission I have been made a seventy and have been able through my career to introduce the gospel to producers, musicians, and other people in the industry. I give a Book of Mormon with a picture of our family and my testimony in the front to the conductor of the orchestra I happen to be working with and also to people I meet on planes while traveling. By the time Producer Kieth Merrill * and I finished doing Three Warriors, the editor, who is Jewish, wanted to send his daughter to BYU. They went out and investigated the school, and I believe she is enrolled there now.

Another experience I had was when I was conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra in London. By the time the session was over, I had told them all about Utah without mentioning that I was Mormon. But when I didn’t take any tea during the tea break, they asked me if I was a Mormon, and that led to some interesting conversation.

The New Era: How did you feel conducting the National Philharmonic?

Merrell: Thrilled! Before I went to London, I had conducted the BYU Cougar Band on a couple of occasions and the Provo 29th Ward Choir, and that was basically all the practical experience I had had. The National Philharmonic has recorded such Academy Award contracts as Superman and Star Wars, and so I was very excited to have the opportunity to work with them.

The New Era: How did it go?

Merrell: For me personally it was a fantastic experience. When the orchestra was playing, I concentrated so hard on the music, that I would literally forget what I was doing. Then finally I’d stand back against the podium with the headphones on and listen and try to capture the experience in my mind. Suddenly I would think to myself, “This is me up here!” After it was all over, I felt like withdrawing to a little room just to enjoy the experience in my mind and recall it over and over.

The New Era: How did you become involved in writing music as a career?

Merrell: After my mission I was hired as a part-time employee of the BYU Sound Services while studying music theory and composition at the university. I began by recording concerts and recitals, then moved into producing records, and eventually became a full-time musical supervisor. My first big break came when I was given the opportunity to do the arrangements for The First Vision. The music was very difficult to write, especially the revelation sequence. I listened to many of the great pieces that have been done concerning deity—such as Ben Hur and Crawford Gates’ music to the Hill Cumorah pageant—but nothing came to me. I wrote a lot of ideas down on paper, but none of them really made sense. So finally I shut the door of my studio and got down on the hard linoleum and began praying. I told Heavenly Father, “I’ve written this idea and this is how it goes, and now I’m not sure just what to write. I’ve done everything I can. Now what should I do?” When I finished, I knelt there for a while, hoping something would happen, but nothing did. So I got up and walked over to the piano and sat down and started looking at my favorite theme. Then suddenly I saw how I could take that idea and add another idea to it and write this little thing in between and put this together and take that and bridge this and change that one and do all this and that was it! I started writing, and about 45 minutes later I had written the whole sequence. What I’ve learned from that experience, and over and over again since then, is to put all the effort and research into my music that I can, and then just relax and let the Spirit take over. I don’t feel I can ask the Lord for help if I’m not working as hard as I can.

The New Era: Have you had other experiences where the music for a certain piece suddenly came to you?

Merrell: Yes, and there’s kind of a funny story involved in one case. Betsy and I were driving back from dinner one evening trying to decide whether I should do Three Warriors. We were on the freeway, and I started hearing music I thought would be perfect for the theme song. The next morning I got up and wrote it down, and Kieth came over and I played it for him. Halfway through he got up to leave, and I said, “Kieth, where are you going?” He said, “The music is fine. I trust you.” We recorded it, and after a screening with the distributors, the producer told me he loved the music. Kieth came over to me then and said, “You know, when you played the theme song for me that day and were telling me what the French horns would sound like, and the strings, and everything else, all I could hear was your terrible voice and your out-of-tune piano. I was really worried, but I’ll never doubt your judgment again!”

The New Era: How did you first begin working with Brother Merrill?

Merrell: At the same time I was doing The First Vision, Kieth was doing Indian and trying to find an Indian to do the title song. Although I wasn’t Indian, I figured I had nothing to lose, and I sent him a 15-minute tape anyway. In my letter I told him that not only could I write the title song but I felt I could also write the rest of the music for the movie. He liked my tape and asked for more and eventually gave me the contract. That began our association together.

The New Era: What other films have you worked on together?

Merrell: Besides Indian and Three Warriors we have done Take Down and most recently Harry’s War. Would you like to hear the story connected with my doing Take Down?

The New Era: We would!

Merrell: Kieth told me they probably wouldn’t use me on Take Down because the investors wanted someone with a big Hollywood name to help sell the film. My opportunity to do it began, strangely enough, when the BYU basketball team lost to the University of Utah. That night as I was trying to sleep, an arrangement of the “Cougar Fight Song” that I hadn’t heard before kept running through my mind. I finally got up, took a tape recorder, and dictated what I was hearing. A week later I orchestrated it, went to London, and at the end of the regular recording session, recorded the National Philharmonic playing my new “Cougar Fight Song.” It had a combination Star Wars-Rocky-disco sound and I loved it! I wanted it to be perfect because I planned to give it to Coach Arnold to help inspire his team to win.

Well, the day I returned to Utah I was in the studio listening to it and received a call from Kieth. He said, “Merrell, I’m totally frustrated; I’ve gone through composer after composer and no one strikes a bell. Do you have anything with a sports theme that sounds like Rocky and Star Wars combined?” I couldn’t believe it! I told him what I had and then sent him down a rough mix. After listening to it, he called in the investors and had them listen to it, and within three minutes they decided they wanted me to do the music for Take Down.

Later when Kieth talked to me, he said, “I don’t care what you do in the rest of the picture, but I want the end titles to sound like your Cougar song without the Cougar melody.” And that’s how close I came to getting the exact music he wanted before he had even asked me to submit a song. To me that was really a faith-promoting experience because I had been inspired several months earlier to be almost overwhelmed by a certain sound, write it down in the specific style Kieth wanted, record it, and have it ready the very day Kieth called.

The New Era: Do you plan to go to Hollywood someday and work totally in motion pictures?

Merrell: No, we have a nice home here in Provo and don’t plan to move. I do have hopes that producers who hear my music will contact me, since I don’t feel I need to live in Hollywood to write music for motion pictures. I also enjoy the work I’m involved in for the Church and feel as proud of the music for The First Vision and Where Jesus Walked as I do the commercial pictures.

The New Era: What advice do you give young artists who hope to make it professionally today?

Merrell: I tell them to become the very best, the most contemporary they can—and that they needn’t compromise their standards to do so. For example, if an entertainer wants to wear a lighted-up suit and feels comfortable in it, then he should wear the very sharpest lighted-up suit he can, but he should be sure it is modest. Likewise, entertainers should play the most contemporary music they can find in their particular field, but be careful that the lyrics don’t promote immorality or profanity and that the music doesn’t create the wrong type of emotions and feelings. It may take you a little longer to be recognized, but your example and hard work will make you a success. Ultimately others will notice and respect you for that much more than if you had become like the rest of the world.

The New Era: Can you give a personal example to illustrate that thought?

Merrell: One particular example I might share happened in Hollywood. I had met a composer who had written the music for 58 great movies, and he invited me to dinner with him and the producer of his current movie. We talked a lot about Utah, and by the end of the meal they knew I was LDS, although we hadn’t talked about that. I had dinner with the composer again, and we corresponded, and I gave him a picture of my family. One day he said to me, “You are a lot more successful than I am,” and I know he was talking about something more important than music. I looked at him as a superstar, as someone I was fortunate to even sit in the same car with, and he was admiring me.

The New Era: What advice would you give young people who may be wondering just what their own talents are?

Merrell: I think basically that if you love doing something, it is probably a talent. Maybe you excel in woodwork or are a great salesman. Or maybe you are just plain great with people and are always finding yourself doing things like putting your arms around the little boy down the block who’s lost his bicycle. That is a great talent. Parents can help you identify your talents, and you also need to ask the Lord to help you identify them. Then, once you know what they are, pursue them and use them to contribute something of value to society. Each of us has a mission to fulfill and specific talents to help us do it, and the Lord will help us if we seek his guidance.

The New Era: What role does individuality play in talent development?

Merrell: Today the world teaches that you should do your own thing and look out for your own interests at the expense of everyone else. But that, of course, is not the way the Lord intended us to use our talents. Following that philosophy will cut us off from his inspiration. We will ultimately be neither happy nor successful. However, when you realize that every individual is unique and is capable of receiving personal inspiration, it opens up a whole new world of positive possibilities.

For example, in musical expression there is usually more than one right way to do something. If I’m writing a piece of music, it is influenced by my emotions and my perceptions and comes out a certain way. But someone else, using his own creative juices, could write a whole different style of music and be equally successful. What makes personal creativity so wonderful is that there is room for a million expressions for a specific situation and all of them can be good. It’s important to remember that just because one person is successful in a particular field doesn’t mean there’s no room for someone else in the same field. It’s possible for several artists to be equally successful.

The New Era: Would you ever compose music for a film you didn’t agree with?

Merrell: No, I wouldn’t be able to write music for a picture that promoted the wrong principles. I believe that to compose the correct music for a piece means becoming totally involved in it, and I couldn’t do that if it meant compromising my principles.

The New Era: Can you sum up your general philosophy concerning being an LDS composer or entertainer in today’s world?

Merrell: Yes, I think we need to remember that our life is a mission, and if we will be receptive to the counsel and inspiration of the Lord, he will direct us in what is right. I believe that learning to listen and to remain spiritually in tune are essential to successfully completing that mission.

[photos] Photos by Brian K. Kelly

Show References

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    Brother Merrill is also LDS and has won an Academy Award for the documentary The Great American Cowboy.