Michael Martin Murphey’s Cowboy Logic

IN A SCENE from the ongoing unmaking of a counterculture, Michael Martin Murphey, at his 70th birthday concert Saturday night in Oak Cliff, saluted the NRA and quoted Bible verses. The audience for the second show at the Kessler Theater stood and cheered the flag-waving patriotic sentiments he offered up in tribute to America’s ranchers, cowboys, military, police and others who were not such heroes to young musicians and their fans when Murphey first hit the stage in Texas in the 1960s and early 70s. Some might remember he was there at the birth of the Progressive Country movement when long-haired southwestern troubadours with both Woodstock and Lone Star in their veins were reinventing country music for younger, dope-smoking Texans who had never heard of Ernest Tubb. Many of them were Democrats and some even liberals.

Murphey’s 1972 album Geronimo’s Cadillac, its title song a rousing anthem lamenting the poor treatment of Native Americans, was new-found gold on the plains, evidence that Texas had smart songpoets and pickers as good as Neil Young and Roger McGuinn or whoever. It was Bob Dylan’s producer, Bob Johnston, who found Murphey and made the album for A&M. That album was on my record shelf with Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua, Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages and B.W. Stevenson’s eponymous debut as the choice cuts of a soulful new sound that jumped the gap between folk and honky tonk.

With cover boy looks and a gospel church voice, Murphey had come back to Texas to do his own thing after writing songs for hire in Los Angeles. He got to Austin about the time Willie Nelson was arriving back from Nashville and both became chapters in Jan Reid’s genre-defining book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. But Murphey soon decamped to the high country of New Mexico and Colorado, leaving the urban and cosmic cowboys behind for various residencies in the rural West. His biggest hit, “Wildfire” (co-written with Larry Cansler) was about a ghost horse galloping through the Nebraska night.

I reviewed and interviewed him in the 1970s when I was a music critic at the Dallas Times Herald, but I did not keep up with him after moving away from Texas myself and had not heard him perform in decades. I knew that after “Wildfire” he had reached the charts with the Adult Contemporary love ballads “What’s Forever For” and “Long Line of Love,” and that at some point he turned his career toward the Western archive, rediscovering and recording authentic cowboy songs, like those once collected by scholars and shared at the annual meeting of the Texas Folklore Society.

SATURDAY NIGHT he came dressed for a John Ford Western — long coat, silk scarf, vest and watch chain, a black Stetson capping his golden locks. I was prepared to hear a new set list tailored to his outfit, but in fact he featured the old hits —  “Cherokee Fiddle,” “Cosmic Cowboy,” “Carolina in the Pines” and “Geronimo’s Cadillac” among them — in fine voice and backed by a virtuosic family band on mandolin, guitar, bass and fiddle. He did perform sterling versions of “Streets of Laredo” and Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and closed with a rhapsodic “Wildfire” in which his lightening fast sideman Shaun Richardson keenly mimicked the late Jac Murphy’s signature piano intro on the guitar, note for note.

Murphey was raised Southern Baptist and was always inclined to preaching, but back in the day it was often about the evils of the record business (And the music gets sold by the lawyers…) Playing to the hometown crowd, he traced his ancestry here back to the War for Independence and got a crowd-pleasing whoop by referring to the Texas Republic as “the greatest beacon of freedom the world has ever known.” And you had to wonder if the slaves would have agreed. An astonishing statement really.

What is that about anyway? Some say he is simply preaching to a different choir now, the ranchers, cattlemen and cowboy wannabes who make up his target audience. And they are a politically conservative and staunchly Christian bunch. He had a lot to say onstage about the need to restock our ranges with cattle for the sake of the soil — an issue I don’t fully understand. But a knowledgeable friend in Colorado who remembers “Geronimo’s Cadillac” rolls his eyes and tells me Murphey’s got his facts wrong. One thing I do understand is that guns are a scourge to this society, and whether in the hands of criminals, wackos or clueless kids, they continue to take the lives of thousands of innocent people. And the National Rifle Association, through intimidation and campaign contributions, abets this carnage daily by blocking all legislative efforts at gun control.

In a show-stopping moment, Murphey leaned into the microphone and cheerfully promoted an upcoming NRA event for “the ladies,” one where women will be taught how to shoot properly and “be safe.” I thought, holy shit, he’s right there with Ted Nugent!

WHEN MURPHEY WAS FIRST SINGING and playing at the Inside Llewen Davis era club The Rubaiyat on McKinney in Dallas, folk music advocated peace, love and understanding and was politically distinct from the knee-jerk, fightin’ side of me patriotism of C&W. And while Willie and Waylon and the boys later made it safe for hippies to enjoy the steel guitar, the mindless red-white-and-blue Bible-totin’ chauvinism of Nashville country stormed back even before 9/11 and then provided a soundtrack for the U.S. military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lyle Lovett and Gary P. Nunn, the former Murphey keyboardist and “I wanna go home with the Armadillo” author, performed at George W. Bush’s 2nd inaugural ball. Enough said.

I was so rattled by Murphey’s rhetoric at his birthday concert that I went back to Jan Reid’s book to confirm that he wasn’t always like this. Sure enough, he referred to himself then as a hippie and had nothing good to say about “the life-denying generals in the U.S. Army” or Baptists, for that matter. But he was 28 years old. People change, and I can only conclude that time and the river — and guns — have come between me and Michael Murphey since then. Somewhere back there he did caution against placing too much faith in rock stars or expecting them to have all the answers. And given his unexamined pronouncements Saturday night, I couldn’t agree with him more. Why should anyone look to a musician for wisdom about anything beyond music? But I have to add that I will never be able to listen to any of his songs in quite the same way again.

About Sean Mitchell

SEAN MITCHELL is a journalist, critic and former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Dallas Times Herald. His articles and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, and other publications. Born in Bethlehem, Pa., he grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas and Brown University. He lives in Dallas.
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3 Responses to Michael Martin Murphey’s Cowboy Logic

  • Jeff says:

    “Up is not the way I want to shoot” is him saying he doesn’t want to inject heroin into his veins and, to my knowledge, is not a reference to guns or the NRA

  • I’ve heard that before, but I never could figure how that meaning fit the context of the song.

  • Sandra Lane says:

    Yes, Sean, I share your disappointment in Michael Murphey. Back in the 70s, he used to write such beautiful esoteric songs – Swans Against the Sun, Boy from the Country, Waking Up, etc. Somewhere along the way, that part of Michael died and a more harsh, judgmental person emerged. I don’t really care to listen to the present-day Michael anymore. Fortunately, here in the Texas hill country, we still have a few of the 70s songwriters and musicians who have stayed true to their more liberal philosophies – Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kinky Friedman, and a few younger voices. However, it’s sad to see what has happened to Michael Murphey.

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