Michael Martin Murphey: In Search of a ‘Nice Quiet Neighborhood with People I Have a Fellow Feeling With’
In the King James Bible, Matthew 16:13, Jesus asks his disciples, “Whom say ye that I am?” Not to get all mystical or highfalutin’ here, but one could paraphrase this and ask, Whom do we say Michael Martin Murphey is? A relevant question, this, because in one of the most remarkable careers of any musical artist of his generation, Murph, as he’s known to friends, has reinvented himself at least four times, always successfully commercially and artistically, all the while remaining true to the core principles passed along by his family from the time of his Texas childhood. In the end, it all adds up to one of the most important musical legacies of his generation.
To get to this point, it’s always good to start at the beginning. Back in 2010, Murph released Buckaroo Bluegrass 2, the second of two albums of bluegrass music with a cowboy sensibility. In an interview with the online magazine TheBluegrassSpecial.com, he reflected on the nature of material chosen for the project. His words are telling:
“There’s a gypsy in here. Throughout the entire album are songs about a longing to go beyond where you are now and go over the next horizon. And looking back over my life, it’s true that I’ve been a drifter, a gypsy, never really settled down. … there’s something in me that wants to keep moving around. I settled down for a while, and then the scene that I moved there for changes, and I go. So I’m trying to keep the same feeling all the time and that’s why I keep moving around. The neighborhood changes, you know.
“When I moved to Austin, we were all in it together, we were all great friends, we were getting together passing the guitar around; Jerry Jeff, even before there was a music scene perceived to be gathering in Texas, he was writing on napkins, saying, “What do you think of this? ‘I knew a man, Bojangles, and he’d dance for you.’” I was at the party where he got the napkins out that he wrote that on, and everybody was telling him it was great, “a little bit long.” Jerry Jeff said, “I don’t know how I can shorten it.” We said, “Neither do we, so just do it.” And that was back in the ‘60s before there was ever anything called an Austin music scene. So there’s a drifter in me. I moved to Austin to be around that scene that I loved, and all those people, and some of those people moved away and a lot of carpetbaggers moved in, trying to kind of cash in on the scene and tried to appear to have been there all along when they really weren’t there. They weren’t Texas in their soul. That’s when I had to get up and go, because I’ve always been seeking just a nice, quiet neighborhood with people I have a fellow feeling with; when it changes I have to leave. But the transient nature of my career and the transient nature of my thinking and my life is very evident here, and I think there’s a little boy who missed his dad being on the road a whole lot. That’s what hear in it.”
Born on March 14, 1945 to Pink Lavary Murphey and Lois (neé Corbett) Murphey in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood, Murph was riding horses by age six, learning from his grandfather and uncles while visiting their ranches. By night, he would fall asleep on their front porches as the men sang cowboy songs and told tales, some tall, some true, about life on the prairies. There he came to know, and feel intimately, the songs of giants on the order of Bob Nolan, the poet laureate of western song—“Cool Water” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”—Bob Wills and “San Antonio Rose” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” and evergreens such as “I Ride an Old Paint” and “Back in the Saddle Again.” Gene Autry and Roy Rogers ruled his imagination and shaped his future. Because he was traveling so much for business, Murph’s father would send him and his younger brother, Mark, out to those ranches where they could run free, in mind, spirit and body.
“My dad was an accountant in downtown Dallas working for a mortgage banker,” Murph related in a 2011 interview with TheBluegrassSpecial.com. “But I will say this: my parents, although they were city people, they sent us out to the family ranches in the country as often and as much as possible. My dad made a concerted effort to do that. He could have been playing baseball with his boys when he came home from work every day in the summer; instead he sent us to my granddad’s ranch, and we spent the whole summer there riding horses and stuff like that. We realized that was what dad wanted to be doing; he just couldn’t because of the job he had. That in a way was a big sacrifice, but that was also the determining factor. So it wasn’t so much about it becoming an interest—it was just there. And I loved it. Unlike a lot of Texans, who are urban Texans, I had actually lived on a ranch, helped work cattle, helped milk the cows, rode on the tractor, and my grandfathers and my uncles who did that for a living were my heroes. I looked up to them and the songs they sang were ‘Red River Valley,’ ‘Cool Water.’ So I got to live the life, and, unlike a lot of kids, I never left the songs of my culture and the roots of my culture; sure, I liked ‘Hound Dog’ and all that stuff, but I never was really a rock ‘n’ roller. I really loved the music of the guys that raised me.”
Having found his muse, Murph was on the coffeehouse circuit, playing original material, by the time he was in high school and was also performing with his friends Owen "Boomer" Castleman and Bob Jacobs in The Lost River Trio. At age 18 he had his own TV show in Dallas.
Matriculating first to North Texas State College and then to UCLA in Westwood, California, Murph continued writing and performing while studying classical literature, medieval and renaissance history and literature, poetry and creative writing. Performing solo, he started making a name for himself in the folk clubs, leading to, in 1964, a songwriting contract with Sparrow Music. Another venture with Castleman ensued, this a band called New Survivors, whose other members were a bassist named John London, who had played on James Taylor's debut album, and another aspiring singer-songwriter in Michael Nesmith, who would find success not as a New Survivor but as a member of The Monkees (who recorded a catchy version of the Murphey-Castleman-penned "What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round?"). The New Survivors recorded one unreleased album before disbanding. Murphey and Castleman then went out as a duo, Travis & Boomer, which begat the Texas Twosome, who were joined by a third member, on banjo, in John McEuen, who became a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and remains a tireless champion of acoustic roots music.
It was in another duo with Castleman, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, that Murphey began to find not only a distinctive voice as a songwriter, but a mission as well, that being to fuse country, folk and pop and add to the blend the lore and poetry of the old west, whose history had been one of the passions of his life, dating back to those childhood years on his grandfather's and uncle's ranches, where he had absorbed his family's tall tales about the cowboys, Native Americans and the notorious characters and great deeds in old west history. Out of this came a strong social conscience and a deep, abiding love of the land and nature, all of which informed his original material. After one unsuccessful album, though, the Lewis & Clark Expedition disbanded, Castleman going his way, Murphey retreating with his new bride to a bungalow in the picturesque mountains above the Mojave Desert.
The young man came down from the mountains in 1970 and returned to Texas, to Austin, where he became one of the most popular artists in a burgeoning, fertile music scene that featured a raft of gifted singer-songwriter types working the Austin-San Antonio-Houston club circuit, including Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, the mercurial Townes Van Zandt, and bringing up the rear, a younger guard that included Houston-born Rodney Crowell, and Steve Earle. Murphey was referred to by the locals as the "Cosmic Cowboy," with one of his admirers being a then-strait-laced Willie Nelson, who, after witnessing one of Murphy's shows at the Armadillo World Headquarters, was inspired to toss out his conservative suits, let his hair and his beard grow, play the songs he had always been playing but now to a young audience that adopted him wholeheartedly—in a way he had never experienced in Nashville in almost two decades of struggle there—and welcomed him as a folk hero.
But Murphey and the others weren't about looking the part of outsiders. They were about asserting a fresh view of country music. "When I went back to Texas and Austin in the '70s, everyone was pretty much listening to rock' n' roll; but my idea, along with Willie, Waylon, and others, was to revive the songwriting ballad tradition of Texas and reconnect it to cowboy music," Murphey recalled in an interview with The Performing Songwriter magazine. "My music had been influenced by rock' n' roll and pop music, too, as well as the modern country music of the day, but I couldn't get around the Western theme--it was all about loving the culture of my Texas roots. We were the hip, turned-on people of the time, but trying to salute tradition. This is what made Texas music different than anything else that was going on because nothing else saluted tradition. Everybody else was trying to do something far out, and Texans were trying to reconnect with their roots in a turned-on way."
In 1971, producer Bob Johnston, whose resume included acclaimed work with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Simon & Garfunkel, among others, saw Murph performing in Dallas and signed him to a recording contract with A&M Records. Murph’s debut album, Geronimo’s Cadillac, received rave reviews and suddenly put Austin on the nation’s music map in a major way. Rolling Stone’s respected music editor, Chet Flippo, hailed the artist as “the best new songwriter in America.”
The title track (a Top 40 hit, peaking at #37), which referenced the ill-treatment of Native Americans throughout U.S. history, brought considerable media attention Murphey's way and also led him, descendant of Irish freedom fighters, full-bore into activist causes on behalf of Native American tribes, a commitment he has never abandoned. Written as a protest song after Murphey saw a photograph taken of the Chief being paraded in a Cadillac convertible, the least of "Geronimo's Cadillac"'s achievements was its ascension into the Top 40; in 1974 it was used at the occupation of Wounded Knee (resulting in Murph being placed, to his great satisfaction, on the FBI's "watch" list) and resulted in him being adopted into the Lakota Nation by the Dull Knife Family, by request of medicine man, Guy Dull Knife.
Handsome and literate to boot, Murph came to embody the image of the new breed of artist coming out of the Lone Star State, his public persona sealed by the title of his second album, 1973's Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir. Three years later, now on the Epic label, Murph hit the pop jackpot with his album Blue Sky-Night Thunder and its irresistible ballad "Wildfire," a story song inspired by tales of ghost horses Murphey had heard in his youth. The single was a smash, reaching #3 on the pop charts and dominating radio playlists coast to coast.
But despite a succession of strong followup albums on Epic, a “Wildfire”-like hit proved elusive. Undaunted, he began another transformation by performing solo, accompanying himself on guitar and piano, in small venues, not necessarily places where you would expect the hitmaker behind “Wildfire” to be appearing. Month after month he used these intimate performances to assert his values, musical and otherwise, and reclaim some part of himself he had misplaced en route to becoming a pop star. Here a listener could really hear, for example, the eerie invocation “Wildfire” really was when stripped of its pop production flourishes; here a listener could really hear songwriting as high, compelling art of a personal nature.
Which made his next incarnation a bit puzzling, albeit wildly successful. Signed by Liberty Records, a division of Capitol, he emerged sans long hair as the clean-cut, romantic tenor of mainstream country. Lightning struck again and again, as the hits kept rolling out, some with his own songs others with well-crafted tunes by gifted songwriters on the order of Jesse Winchester (whose wry “I’m Gonna Miss You, Girl” Murph took to #3 single in 1987) and Rafe Van Hoy, whose winsome ballad, “What’s Forever For?”, given a poignant reading by Murph, topped the chart in 1981.
Although he was becoming the poster boy for the critically derided infusion of softer pop influences into mainstream country, Murph went his own way, resolutely so. And why not? He was an insider with a saboteur's instincts. He didn't reject the establishment so much as figure out a way to maneuver within its framework while playing by rules partly of his own making. Even as he was dominating the airwaves and the charts, he was sewing the seeds of the artist he's become. In 1985, he performed with the New Mexico Symphony in a concept show he titled, "A Night in the American West," the first in what became literally hundreds of performances with American and Canadian symphonies. In his interviews and other public pronouncements, he invariably steered the conversation into social issues, such as the plight of the American farmer, the destruction of the Plains, the treatment of Native Americans, while making clear his love of and devotion to the cowboy life and ethos. In 1987 he was no longer simply talking a good game, he was playing it too: he founded a Western cultural festival, WestFest, which started in Colorado and outdrew Nashville’s celebrated artist-fan meet-and-greet event, Fan Fair (and may well be revived once it’s safe to assemble in groups again).
With the founding of WestFest, the recording artist began another transformation, albeit gradually, with the release of Americana (1987), River of Time (1988) and Land of Enchantment (1989), each of which edged him closer to the New Traditionalist movement’s embrace of early country music’s basic band sound devoid of ephemera such as strings and pop-style backing vocals—more honky-tonk, more folk-flavored, even more Beatles influenced but less Nashville Sound in effect. Following Land of Enchantment, Murph went for it. Inspired by the success of Linda Ronstadt’s Spanish-language return to her roots, Canciones de Mi Padre, and of Eric Clapton’s deep blues long player, Unplugged, itself a return to Slow Hand’s deepest musical influences, he suggested Warner Bros. allow him to do a similar tribute to his roots in the form of an album of cowboy songs. To say this idea was greeted unenthusiastically by everyone at the label would be an understatement. You can imagine: Murph’s tunestack for the album included “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “The Old Chisholm Trail,” “Home on the Range,” “Red River Valley,” “The Streets of Laredo,” “Happy Trails,” “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” along with two originals and a humorous but sensible look at the cowboy mindset in Don Cook’s newly penned “Cowboy Logic.” One WB executive told him outright, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Famous last words. The story of how 1990’s Cowboy Songs not only came to be but ultimately found a huge, apparently untapped audience is a book-lenggth treatise detailing a lack of any initial promo, help from the label, which was countered by an aggressive self-promotional campaign by Murph, who was given a big assist in his effort by popular Nashville TV host Ralph Emery on his Nashville Now show, who in turn urged the artist to make the first big sales pitch via a toll-free 800 number, which in turn produced four thousand orders on its first day on the air. The tale is almost Dickensian in its telling, with Murph in the role of indefatigable, undaunted Nicholas Nickleby, for instance, and any number of label execs vying for the role of Nicholas’s miserly, miserable rich uncle. The end result, though, is what counts: Cowboy Songs yielded the unthinkable—a hit single in “Cowboy Logic,” and ultimately a gold verging on platinum album (“It takes Garth Brooks about fifteen minutes to go gold or platinum,” Murph once mused. “It took us ten years to go gold.”).
With that, Murph’s new persona was sealed—since that time he has dressed solely in western wear; spent what little down time he has working his ranches in Colorado and New Mexico; aggressively promoting and supporting farmers’ causes in the firm belief that “there is no culture without agriculture”; playing both solo and band shows devoted to his western oeuvre; and speaking out on social issues involving farmers, Native Americans, land and water rights and such.
And along the way, from 1989 to the present day, he has produced a steady stream of cowboy song-oriented albums that are similar only in appearance. Always seeking new avenues of expression for the cowboy ethos, he’s delivered a towering body of work. Many fine artists before him have opened up new avenues of expression in the western-oriented song style, starting, most notably, with Bob Nolan; flowering anew in the ‘60s with Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash; and in the present day championed and invigorated by the likes of Don Edwards and the enduring Riders in the Sky, lead by western song authority Ranger Doug Green.
But take a quick look at Murph’s legacy in brief. Nineteen other albums have followed the first volume of Cowboy Songs, including a live album (Live at Billy Bob’s Texas, 2004) and two volumes of re-recordings of his earlier songs under the title Playing Favorites. Otherwise, major highlights of his daunting catalogue would begin with seven volumes of Cowboy Songs, culminating thus far in 2016’s High Stakes: Cowboy Songs VII, in which he constructs a narrative of humans being formed, and transformed, by nature—witness the latest of six generations of cattlemen bucking the odds of a dwindling market in the Irish-tinged “Three Sons”; the young man engulfed in “sinful living” who hears a divine voice calling him to the straight and narrow when the sky opened up while he was in the midst of rustling cattle, as recounted in a powerful reading of Marty Robbins’s classic Western melodrama-in-song, “Master’s Call”; the soul enriching virtues of living in the natural world chronicled in the thoughtful piano-and-fiddle-based ballad “Campfire On the Road,” in which Murph urges, “We must never let them take this life away.”
The list goes on: three volumes of cowboy-styled versions of Christmas songs rank with his most tender recorded performances in their acoustic beauty; two volumes of Buckaroo Blue Grass are comprised of tunes of his that not only lend themselves to bluegrass treatments but have in fact been recorded by some of bluegrass music’s most important contemporary artists and on which he was accompanied by strictly A-team bluegrassers such as Charlie Cushman, Ronnie McCoury, Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, Rhonda Vincent and Andy Leftwich; and concept albums such as 2011’s Tall Grass & Cool Water, about which he explained in a 2011 interview: “I wanted to pick songs that really spoke about the prairie and the mountains, and expressed emotions about relationships—love, family—through the landscape.” Consider too one of the most scintillating of these concept albums, 2013’s Red River Drifter, wherein the cowboy songs are MIA, the bluegrass is toned down to a more traditional country backdrop, and love is in the air in many forms—romantic love (or the dwindling and rekindling thereof), love between friends (even to the point of enduring beyond the grave) and, of course, love of God’s green earth. Herein are found some of the most exquisite melodies he’s ever crafted; some of the finest singing of his later years (age has given his tenor an appealing, lived-in huskiness that bespeaks a man of experience in the issues he addresses and the lifestyle he extols); unquestionably some of the most complex lyrics he’s ever composed, almost all of the songs having multiple layers of meaning; and tight, focused, emotionally resonant instrumental work. In returning to the topic that made him a country star in the ‘80s, but with a wide angle lens and deep focus, he’s working on his own unfinished symphony in a series of ontological discourses probing our very reason for being. Maybe it’s as simple as “all you need is love,” but love is not only a many-splendored thing, it’s a many-faceted thing as well. Murph, a baby boomer still on a learning curve, knows there is rarely enough time in a life to understand this emotion in all its complexity, but he’s giving it a hell of a try.
And finally, in 2018, a long-overdue nod to his Austin history materialized, a legacy unto itself, in Austinology: Alleys of Austin. With this, Murph didn’t so much settle scores as he corrected history by reminding anyone who came to the album that he had a lot to do with Austin becoming a singer-songwriter destination of choice in the city’s fertile late ‘60s-early ‘70s scene. In fact, the title track from Geronimo’s Cadillac, the album that launched his career and gave Austin its national profile, is reprised here in an intense new treatment with an assist from Steve Earle, whereas “Wildfire”’s loveliness is enhanced by Amy Grant’s vocals. Along the way Murph pays tribute to Guy Clark (“L.A. Freeway,” subject of a furious, rocking attack by Murph and the Last Bandoleros), Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker, and is joined vocally by Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Randy Rogers (featured on a terrific version of Murph’s “Backsliders Wine” from the Geronimo’s Cadillacalbum). History has rarely been corrected with so much grace, commitment and honesty.
Nowadays Murph drops hints of a second volume of Austinology being in the works in 2020, but soon enough the easiest bet in the world will be to lay money on him offering more new reflections on the cowboy way of life and love, because he lives it the way he writes of it.
“Now, I know people toss around the word ‘country’ music just like they toss around political words like ‘values,’ ‘family values,’ and it means nothing to ‘em,” Murph declared in a 2010 interview. “But it does mean something to me. I have lived that life all my life. My entire career I’ve lived in the country, lived in the mountains and on the prairies and the plains, I’ve done some farming but mostly ranching. I produce music of that way of life and I don’t think it’s possible to do the art right without living it.”
As for the gypsy still alive in him, Murph is clear-eyed about its existential meaning. As he said in 2011, “The lone cowboy out there trying to make it and trying to make sense of it all is a very good icon for life itself. In the end, when you go across, nobody’s going to hold your hand. You’re alone again. Even in a modern society where you’re around millions of people—I don’t think I have to say this—social scientists will tell you that the more population grows and the more people you live around, the more isolated people become. Therefore, a cowboy song that talks about a guy lost in a desert trying to find water and coming across an illusion, a mirage, of water, instead of real water, I think that’s a very good statement about the human condition in modern times. We’re wandering around in a cultural desert trying to find water, and we get a lot of mirages.”
A lot of mirages, indeed. All the more reason we need Michael Martin Murphey to stay in the saddle now, more than ever before.
(All quotes are from interviews conducted by David McGee for his online publications, TheBluegrassSpecial.com and Deep Roots (www.deeprootsmag.org), unless indicated otherwise.)