By Rob Patterson
(LSM Sept/Oct 2013/Vol. 6 – Issue 5)
“I’ve always considered myself a serious amateur,” asserts Michael Martin Murphey. “I never wanted to be a professional.”
Despite his best efforts to avoid the sins of being a musical pro, the Dallas-born singer-songwriter has racked up one seriously hefty musical curriculum vitae over the last five decades. To start with, there’s his 1975 No. 3 pop hit, “Wildfire,” and 1982 No. 1 country single, “What’s Forever For,” today both enduring oldies, and golden ones at that. And there’s the 23 other singles he has landed in the Top 20 of the pop, country and adult contemporary charts. Travel back to the ’60s, and there’s the Screen Gems music publishing deal he won with legendary music biz exec/TV concert show host Don Kirshner in Los Angeles; among its yields was a whole album of his songs recorded by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, The Ballad of Calico, and a tune cut by the Monkees. Then, fast forward to the last quarter century, over which Murphey has become the preeminent contemporary exponent of cowboy music. Just for good measure, he’s recorded a few highly credible and successful bluegrass albums in that time span, too.
And beyond all of Murphey’s above achievements, there is also the role he played in launching the Austin progressive country scene in the 1970s. So pivotal a role, in fact, that the Capital City’s first local musical movement to have substantial national impact even took its nickname, “Cosmic Cowboy music,” from a Murphey song.
We all should be so successful as amateurs, right?
And yet, for all of his accomplishments, Murphey doesn’t tend to get the recognition he’s due as a true pioneer and innovator of Texas music. It may be because he’s something of a Red River Drifter — as the title of Murphey’s new album reads. After arriving in Austin in 1970 following his stint on the Left Coast, he put together the Cosmic Cowboy Band — Gary P. Nunn, Bob Livingston, Herb Steiner, Craig Hillis, Michael McGeary and other players — and became the city’s first artist among a number to follow to unite the dopers and ropers and win a major-label deal. He released two albums on A&M Records while in Austin, Geronimo’s Cadillac and Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir, that are bona fide classics if not overlooked masterpieces. Then a throat condition put him out of action for a year. The Cosmic Cowboy Band started backing Jerry Jeff Walker (eventually becoming the Lost Gonzo Band), and by the time Murphey reemerged as a recording and performing artist and finally scored a hit with “Wildfire,” he had drifted on to living in the Colorado Rockies.
Still, wherever Murphey may hang his 10-gallon hat, his work still resonates with Lone Star traditions, themes and a loyalty that were instilled in his youth, growing up in Oak Cliff but also spending time on the East Texas farm of his grandfather. It was on that farm that his love of the working cowboy and mythic West took root. By his teens, Murphey was playing music in folk clubs in Dallas and other Texas cities.
We caught up with Murphey on the road just after his tour bus pulled into Red River, N.M., where he just opened the Rocking 3M Chuckwagon Stage on Fourth of July weekend this year at an old guest ranch in the mountains. He plans for the venue to serve as his home base for regular shows every summer. “It’s like having my own Branson, but without the traffic jams out front,” he quips of the dinner theater.
It’s yet another manifestation of Murphey’s abiding love for both music and the Old West that has suffused his work ever since Geronimo’s Cadillac. It can be also be heard on Red River Drifter, his first collection of new material in a number of years that finds him returning to the singer-songwriter form that served him so well when he debuted out of Austin some 40 years ago.
The concentration on your own songs on Red River Drifter, and to some degree even its sound, recalls your early records. Was that something you were conscious of or wanted to do as you went into the studio?
I enjoyed making this record more than any album I’ve ever worked on since Blue Sky – Night Thunder, which I made at Caribou Ranch [in the Colorado Rockies]. As I look back on my recording career, I realize that with Geronimo’s Cadillac and Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir, I was coming from Austin, Texas and a Texas mentality, but I brought the musicians to Nashville to make those records. I didn’t use the standard Nashville guys. So this project was done with the same kind of approach musically that I’ve always taken in the studio. I didn’t use the A team. I pulled together a group of guys that mostly play onstage with me. I did record in Nashville, but I don’t like to use the standard engineers. I like to use the guys that are trying to work their way in to be the top engineers, and they’re hungry. And they have a little bit of a different sound and a different way of approaching things — and a lot of times it’s better than the people who are settled in.
Speaking of your Austin past, you recently reunited with the Cosmic Cowboy Band for your first show together in four decades. How did that feel?
We put it on in Red River, N.M. on Main St. in a great big tent right in front of the Lodge. We had a huge turnout for it. I stressed out about it for about two months because we hadn’t played together in so many years. But we all went back and listened to the old albums. Bob Livingston did three songs, I did three songs off of my new album, Gary did three songs off of his albums. By the time you put three/six/nine songs there, then with the Cosmic Cowboy stuff and they did some Gonzo Band stuff as well, that was a concert. It was really fun, and probably the high point for me was working up “South Canadian River Song” again, which I consider to be one of the finest pieces of music that I ever had anything to do with. Gary Nunn came up with a large part of the music and I came up with the lyrics. Musically it really holds up as something original and interesting. In fact, we’re talking about getting together and making a new album. I don’t think any of us just wants to do the retro thing if we get together again.
What was it that originally brought you back to Texas and to Austin after living in Los Angeles?
There was an earthquake in 1970. I decided that I didn’t want my house to fall down on my 1-year-old son, who’s now my producer. So it was that, and that the drug scene had become so pervasive. And then hard drugs were starting to come in. I always hated that stuff. I couldn’t stand to be around drugs. I saw people losing their minds taking LSD, mescaline, losing their lives with heroin and crystal meth, so I left. So to avoid drugs, I went to Austin, Texas! Even though it’s kind of funny to say that I went to Austin to get away from drugs, back in the day, marijuana was about as serious as it got. I saw very little cocaine or any other hard drugs in Austin when I got there in 1970.
Did you also feel that it might be a better place to make the music you wanted to do?
I’d just decided, “Look, I’m never gonna get a record deal in California. I’m gonna go back and live in Texas and play these local clubs.” Well, long about 1970, something big time happened in Texas that people overlook: Almost all the counties in Texas adopted liquor by the drink. Virtually every county in Texas was dry up until 1970, and if you wanted to have a drink, you had to join a private club. All of Dallas was that way; a good deal of Austin was that way, San Antonio. It was all private clubs and private dancehalls. But that all changed and all these clubs popped up that had alcohol. It also paid better in Texas. And you could play your own music. And because I had this reputation as a songwriter — I had a little bit of an aura about me because I had been to California in the big-time music scene writing songs for stars — I was able to get bookings and get in.
Weren’t you the first notable artist to start playing what became known as Austin progressive country music?
Probably the most pivotal moment in my life in the Austin music scene was: We were playing at a place called Mother Earth. I had just moved to town. And in walks Eddie Wilson [who ran the Armadillo World Headquarters and now owns Threadgill’s]. And he said, “I’ve got somebody with me I want you to meet.” And I said, “I recognize him, it’s Willie Nelson.” He had on a sharkskin suit and tie, clean shaven, short hair. Looked like the Willie Nelson of the old album covers. But I was such a country music fan I had already bought and owned a lot of Willie Nelson’s albums. I knew what a great songwriter he was.
So Willie started playing opening sets for me at the Armadillo, and when Geronimo’s Cadillac came out, he was the opening act on the first Geronimo’s Cadillac tour. His band was him and Paul [English] because he couldn’t afford a bass player; it was just him and a drummer. He played that same old guitar he plays now, and it looked pretty beat-up back then! So, we did this tour for Geronimo’s Cadillac in Texas, and it was a total flop. I bet we didn’t draw 10 people. It was ridiculous. But then we went out of Texas and played in New England and around the country and those shows went over big time. Everybody thought what was coming out of Texas was awesome, but the people in Texas weren’t too impressed with it … except in Austin. The people in Lubbock, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, they were not all that impressed with it on a larger scale.
Anyway, I didn’t move there to try to start some kind of music scene or today get some kind of credit, because it’s not where you start, but where you end up. I actually give Willie Nelson credit for coalescing the whole thing together. It was just an amazing time. A lot of people were bailing out of the establishment music scene. And all the production started to decentralize. That’s always been the hallmark of Austin: maverick, independent, do it yourself. Lone cowboy.
How did you get your deal with A&M Records?
It was Bob Johnston — also a Texan, from Fort Worth — who walked into the Rubaiyat club [in Dallas] one night when I was playing with Bob Livingston and said, “Do you want to make an album?” I said, “Sure.” “Well, come to Nashville right away. That’s where I live. We’ll put you in Columbia Studio A.” I said, “Well, when do you want to do this?” He said, “I mean right away.”
I borrowed my Dad’s Buick and drove all night long. I took Bob Livingston up there. And I cut 42 songs that I thought were going to be demos. Then I asked Bob [Johnston], “When are we going to do the real album after you pick the 10 songs?” He said, “You just made the album and I’m going to add everything else.”
Why did you leave Austin just as the scene was starting to bloom?
We were all playing and having a great time; everyone would get together and play. Although I wasn’t a doper, I liked being around all those guys. But they were really heavy dopers and really heavy drinkers, and I just couldn’t hang with that scene. That’s why I left Los Angeles. And then all of a sudden Geronimo’s Cadillac and Cosmic Cowboy took off. And all of a sudden all these record company people started showing up in Austin, and then people who didn’t have anything to do with Texas started showing up and claiming they had something to do with the Texas music scene even though they showed up last week. And I saw people like B.W. Stevenson and Rusty Wier, who were local guys, get completely overlooked for people who didn’t have anything to do with the Texas culture. So at that point, it was like, the carpetbaggers have arrived, so I’m going to take off and do my own thing. So I moved to Colorado.
Did it surprise you that your song “Wildfire” did so well on the pop charts?
Of the material that I proposed for that album, the one song that Bob Johnston didn’t care for was “Wildfire.” He said, “I just don’t think that one is going to have a chance.” I said, “Just let me put it on the record as an album cut.” He did not see how “Wildfire” fit into the other songs I had written.
I had gone to South Dakota and written songs while I was living on the Pine Ridge Reservation. “Geronimo’s Cadillac” is what had gotten me there. Then on Blue Sky – Night Thunder there were pictures of the medicine man who had adopted me into the Lakota nation. That album had that feeling. Because “Wildfire” was on the album, though it was written earlier, most people saw it as somehow an Indian story. And they think that the girl who rode the ghost horse Wildfire was an Indian. But it actually never says that in the song. People actually just kind of made that transfer. It was my sister-in-law at the time who said, “You have to record that song for me, just put it on an album for me one time.” So I did.
After we finished the album we got the kitchen staff at Caribou Ranch in Colorado where we recorded the album to come in and listen. And they were all girls who were 18, 20, 22 years old working there. And they went nuts over “Wildfire.” So Bob said, “Well, what do I know? Let’s tell Epic Records that the girls liked the song.” Women have always driven record sales more than men. So Bob called up and said, “We’re getting a great reaction from people who have heard the album to ‘Wildfire,’ we think you should push this as a single.” Even though in those days, you’d put an album out and then wait to see what radio would play from it. But “Wildfire” is the one that took off. That was the biggest thing I’d ever had anything to do with.
When you did your first Cowboy Songs album in 1990, wasn’t its success also something of a surprise?
Those things always surprise you — those things you’re most passionate about, if you manage to get it in the studio and capture it. When I made the first cowboy album, I hired guys that owned the old guitars that Gene Autry and Roy Rogers played. We used a steel guitar with no pedals like back in that era. That whole collection of guys were just handpicked because they knew how to get this old-fashioned sensibility. We didn’t even use drums on some of the tracks; that was heresy at the time.
Warner Bros. was so opposed to me putting that album out that they dropped me from the label. I said, “Well, I’m not a Tennessee guy, I’m from Texas, and this is just something I want to do right now.” So I thought that my career was possibly over at that time. And it was just taking the music to Ralph Emery and some of the people on TNN [The Nashville Network] that liked cowboy music and getting it on television that caused Warner Bros. to come back in and say, “We’ll take the album because we’ve seen the reaction you’re getting.”
And it launched a whole new and quite successful era in your career, and paralleled a lifelong passion of yours. Don’t you also have a second career as a rancher?
I’ve had horses pretty much all my life. I started riding when I was a kid. I always wanted to have some horses around. But about over 20 years ago I got to do something that I vowed to my grandfather I would do someday: “I want to be a cattle rancher like you.” So I bought some cattle and had cattle and land in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and Kansas.
I have Texas longhorns. I’m a real traditionalist when it comes to cattle. The Cattleman’s Beef Association doesn’t care for me too much because they don’t like horned cattle, but I love ’em, I love the old longhorns. And then I started developing a horse breeding operation that went along with that — working cow horses that can rope, rein, work cattle and cut.
Today I’m still pretty much on that track. Fortunately I married a cowgirl who had three daughters when I married her that were all expert horse trainers, even when they were little girls. One of them, my daughter Jessica, is trained in genetics at the University of Wisconsin. So we’ve really got a good breeding operation going now. We’ve got some horses that come out of the great old foundation breeds and biggest and best and most prize-winning horses. We’re having a lot of fun with it.
And don’t you also have land in East Texas near where your ancestors first settled here?
I bought property in Linden a while back because I’ve always wanted to have property in the place my family came into in the 1840s. So I had an opportunity to get that, and I believe that the property I own is within a 10 square-mile radius of where they settled. I’ve got records of them owning parcels of land there. What I can’t prove is if they ever actually lived on those parcels, because I know they also lived in Marshall and in Tyler for a while.
I’ve invested my money in land and horses and cattle. I’m a traditional Texan in that way. I’m the Michael Martin Murphey Land & Cattle Company. What I’ve made has been invested in those things. I just love land and I love ranches. So we go back and forth between all those places and it’s fun and it’s a gypsy life.
Looking over all that you’ve done, is there one thing that stands out to you as a proudest achievement?
Yeah, the Buckaroo Bluegrass album I made with my son, Ryan. It was my first Grammy-nominated album. And when see your kid who had a little plastic guitar when he was 3 years old become a Grammy-nominated producer, that was really gratifying. And he picked all the material and the players. Some of the people who played on that are some of the best musicians I ever played with.
Is there anything about you that even some of your biggest fans might be surprised to know?
I don’t think so. Well, I guess one thing that might surprise people is that I am a big fan of the Tin Pan Alley era of songwriting. I love old Tin Pan Alley music and Frank Sinatra and big-band swing. I think you can hear that sometimes in my music. People see me as this cowboy character, but if I’m in New York, I like to put on a tuxedo or a suit and go to a big band concert or a jazz concert. I like that kind of dress-up scene when you go to something like that — it’s all very classy. But I think people see me as a dress-down good-old boy, so they might be surprised by that kind of thing.
Mostly, though, I think people know me for who I am. I’ve never gone for an image that is not the real me. Everybody knows that I tend to be conservative politically. I tend to be on the more Libertarian side of conservative; I tend to like Rand and Ron Paul more than the standard Republican guys. I think everybody knows that. And I’m a follower of C.S. Lewis and the way he viewed Christianity. I’ve always said I’m a Christian from the very beginning. Everybody knows that I’m a rancher and a cowboy, and in that culture I see a lot of depth that maybe the rest of the world overlooks sometimes. My grandfather was one of the deepest thinkers I ever knew and he only had an eighth-grade education. But that’s who I am. I don’t think that surprises anyone.