I first went west at 21 in 1975, possessed of the crazy idea that I would strike it rich panning for gold in Sierra Nevada mountain streams. I was accompanied by two friends also suffering from this get-rich-quick delusion, and we spent a month — before nearly going broke — prospecting and drinking a lot of beer while camped on the Middle Fork of the Feather River in Northern California. One thing I remember about the long cross-country trip in a camper-topped pickup truck was the bad Top 40 music on the radio. Though one tune I never tired of — despite hearing it over and over day and night — was Michael Martin Murphey’s “Wildfire.” Seeing the West for the first time, I found it appropriate background music for the vast sagebrush plains and massive mountains that we passed through. Murphey’s song about a wild horse is inherently Western, and a country-pop version of something highbrow, say, Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-Down.”
I saw Michael Martin Murphey and his “Rio Grande Band” at the Wynona Thompson Auditorium in Cody the other night. The gray-haired but still red-bearded 57-year-old singer-songwriter’s recording career dates to 1972 (“Geronimo’s Cadillac”) and he’s just released a new CD called “Cowboy Classics: Playing Favorites.”
Murphey long ago rejected slick, commercial Nashville to produce his own records (Wildfire Productions, Rancho de Taos, New Mexico), and to concentrate on what has come to be called “western” music, the purist cowboy form popularized by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, “The Sons of the San Joaquin,” and others who built their personal styles on traditional cowboy campfire songs. Murphey believes that the contemporary Nashville sound is increasingly pop-oriented and has deteriorated to being about — as he told us from the stage — “city people who get divorced and otherwise lead dysfunctional lives.” He has joined a Music Row exodus that includes — for their own reasons — artists such as Willie Nelson and Ricky Skaggs. So for Michael Martin Murphey it’s western music and ad-libbed Garth Brooks jokes between tunes, and a booth set up in the lobby to sell his CDs and other memorabilia.
As for the cowboy persona, he certainly looks the part. The night I saw him he sported a full-length fringed buckskin coat, bright blue neckerchief and a brown cowboy hat. The similarly attired Rio Grande Band (including Murphey’s son Ryan on guitar) opened up with Murphey’s bluegrassy and much-covered 1970s hit “Carolina in the Pines,” with its author on banjo. Switching to guitar for the next number, Murphey bantered with the crowd on current events. He joked about sending Texas Rangers to Iraq, and — to further make his politics clearly understood — announced that he liked the fact that “We got a president from Texas who lives on a ranch and knows how to lead a posse.” This got an exuberant round of applause from the cowboy-hatted Wyoming audience. I sat there and thought about all those rabid anti-American, pro-Saddam “antiwar” rallies of late, the clapping driving home the point that there are indeed two Americas.
Murphey jokes that he “plays music to pay for the horses to pay for the cows.” In that way he’s luckier than most people working out on the range. He’s the proud owner of a New Mexico ranch, and very much a partisan of the western agricultural way of life and of the old 1970s “Sagebrush Rebellion.” He has a definite dislike for the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and its inefficient and sometimes Green-fawning public lands grazing policies, and this is reflected in some songs he performs, such as “Ride Rangeland Rebel” and “Cowboy Logic.” BLM jokes that only westerners get join the anti-Nashville, Garth Brooks digs between tunes.
Following an intermission, the second half of the show — the real western part — featured classics including “Red River Valley,” the mournful ballad “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” and the legendary Curly Fletcher’s “The Strawberry Roan.” These songs can be thought of as the core curriculum of cowboy musicology. A tribute to the towering songwriter Marty Robbins (a major Murphey influence) followed as the Rio Grande Band performed “El Paso” and “Big Iron.” A rollicking Murphey composition called “Blue Skies” closed the two-hour show, the song a tribute to the simple pleasures of riding a horse on a nice day.
Murphey’s encore was “Wildfire,” the 1975 song that made him famous. The song is resplendent with western imagery, and brought back memories of a former self. I closed my eyes and saw the mountains and sky as I had first seen them almost three decades ago. And I was reassured that a humane culture was still alive in the heartland of America.
The small sea of cowboy hats rose and gave Michael Martin Murphey and his Rio Grande Band a standing ovation.
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