CODY, Wy. — Michael Martin Murphey and his Rio Grande Band made their annual stopover in Cody recently, performing at the Wynonna Thompson Auditorium in the high school. Every year there seems to be one or two personnel changes in the band, and this year Murphey had included a pedal steel guitar player. The addition of a pedal steel brought a twangy Nashville sound that fit well with Murphey’s standard repertoire of cowboy classics (his own, Marty Robbins, Gene Autry, et al).
After a couple of songs, Mr. Murphey introduced the members of the band, thus informing the audience that the slim, gray-haired guy in the cowboy shirt, blue jeans and boots, and playing the pedal steel was Al Perkins. As Mr. Perkins halfway rose up from behind his instrument and bowed to the crowd — which wasn’t clapping any harder for him than for anyone else in the band — I said to myself: “My God, that’s Al Perkins.” The show continued for two hours, Murphey doing his long string of hits and cover tunes.
To use a cliché, Al Perkins “goes way back.” I didn’t know how far until I later checked his website (even solo studio musicians have websites) and discovered that he got his start playing guitar in a rock and roll band called “The Mystics” in Odessa, Texas, in 1963. What I didn’t need the website to tell me was that Mr. Perkins was the premier pedal steel session player in the Los Angeles “Country Rock” renaissance of the early 1970s. In fact, he has played with everybody from Emmy Lou Harris, to the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Stephen Stills and “Manassas,” and The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band.
Perkins has played on three Grammy Award-winning records, including Harris’s “Live at the Ryman.” He’s played with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, John Prine, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg, the late Roy Orbison, and the legendary, doomed Gram Parsons (“Grievous Angel”). And lately he has his own solo CD out, “Snapshots.” Quite a résumé.
AFTER THE SHOW the lobby was crowded with people — maybe a hundred or more — buying CDs and seeking autographs from Michael Martin Murphey, wearing his black cowboy hat and smiling through his blond but graying beard as he greeted fans at a long table like an author at a book signing. I stood nearby chatting with friends for a while, and then happened to glance back through the open auditorium double doors and down to the stage, where a couple of roadies were busily dismantling equipment. Al Perkins worked at the side of the stage packing up his pedal steel and rolling up electrical cords. Maybe he was fussy about trusting other people to set up and breakdown his equipment. Anyway, while Murphey signed autographs out front, Al Perkins labored with the road crew. So I walked down the aisle to the edge of the stage, caught his attention and introduced myself.
“Are you “the” Al Perkins?” I asked.
Perkins quietly laughed, obviously pleased with the question. “Yeah, that’s right”, he drawled.
“I’ve got all those records”, I said. “Manassas, the Eagles, the Flying Burritos, Emmy Lou…..Well, I used to have ‘em. Not anymore. They’re in a box in my mother’s attic back East.”
Perkins laughed again. He struck me as being a contented and unpretentious man. “Where back East?” he asked.
“Upstate New York,” I said. “I grew up there”.
“I’ve done quite a few shows back through there over the years”.
“I saw you in New Paltz in ‘73 or ‘74,” I said. “At the college. You were with Souther-Hillman-Furay. The sound was awful early in the show, and J.D. Souther gave your sound man the finger and threw a mike stand off the stage.”
Perkins tilted his head back as if to conjure up this incident. Maybe he remembered it. He certainly laughed again: “Sounds about right.”
“What was working with the Stones like?” I asked.
He politely ducked the question, as if any reference to personal experience at close quarters with hedonistic debauchery was somehow gauche. “Well, pretty much what you’d expect,” was all I got out of him as he continued to roll up cords.
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