Michael Martin Murphey: Cowboys & Bluegrass

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When last we left Texas singer-songwriter and rancher Michael Martin Murphey, he was explaining how he went against the country-music grain of the late '80s by recording the improbably successful album of traditional trail songs and ballads, Cowboy Songs. Here he tells us how he continued exploring cowboy music's connection with other kinds of American folk music in the latest extension of his Cowboy Songs project, Buckaroo Blue Grass, which is up to three volumes now.

Rocks Off: On the surface, anyway, it seems like bluegrass and cowboy music would be on the opposite ends of the country-and-western spectrum.

Michael Martin Murphey: You know, you're 100 percent correct on modern music, if you look at what's happening in country music now. But if you go to the 19th century, you'll find that the melodies have a common root. Most of the Westerners were people who moved west, and where did they come from? They came from Appalachia, they came from the South.

A tremendous number of black slaves, after they were released after the Civil War, left the South in disgust because nobody gave them any capital. They had nothing. They finally passed an act that gave them 40 acres and a mule, but they had no capital.

So what are you going to do to survive if you can't buy seed and can't buy anything to farm with, but you've got a government mule and 40 acres? Well, what a lot of them did was they sold the 40 acres and got on the mule and went to Texas and became cowboys.

Twenty-five percent of the cowboys who went up the Chisholm Trail were black. About 50 percent of the rest were Mexican.

They knew how to do it, and they were great at it. It created kind of a more egalitarian workplace in Texas than in the other places that had been in the Confederacy, and the cowboys who were a different color were accepted because they could do the work and they were hated.

Their music, combined with the Celtic music and the German music of the people who migrated here...Texas has more Irish surnames than any other single ethnic group, and Germans.

[They] came here about the same time, and they were the lowest immigrants on the totem pole everyplace else, but like the blacks that came out of the South, they weren't recognized for the work they could do, and so the music that I sing, that is the old-time cowboy music, comes from Appalachia, Scots-Irish roots, black roots and Hispanic roots.

It's a combination of those three things. Some people consider it a witch's brew [laughs]. Other people say, "Man, you combine those kinds of music and you've got nothing except something that makes you want to cover your ears up."

And that's really the way it was until Lomax collected that collection, and Roosevelt wrote an introduction. It's really interesting what he says in the introduction. He says, "The music of the cowboys is something that I prefer over the songs of the ill-smelling vaudeville houses of our day."

He said these songs, they have roots, what makes them great is that basically there's a common experience of real life in them. But those melodies, and the music, comes from fiddle music that really derives from Ireland and Scotland, and got settled in Appalachia. And that's the same root as bluegrass.

RO: You've kind of turned into almost a music historian, haven't you?

MMM: Well, I've always collected cowboy music and always loved it. And I do like old-time music, too. I like old-time American music, fiddle and banjo, stuff like that. It wasn't until a group was formed just recently called the Carolina Chocolate Drops, that people are finally starting to get it, that black music and Scots-Irish music is the formation of American music. Americana music is in those two roots.

You can take that to the bank when you talk about who are the folk icons of America. That's easy to figure out. If there's a black guy playing saxophone in a nightclub in France, people are going to say, "That's American." If a cowboy walks down the street in Paris, France, with boots and a hat on, people are gonna say, "That's an American." We have no other folk icons.

RO: I didn't realize until I read your bio here that you wrote that Monkees song "What Am I Doing Hanging Around?" I think it makes a really good bluegrass song on this record.

MMM: It was a bluegrass song originally, when I wrote it. I thought of it as a bluegrass song. It was the only bluegrass/country song that the Monkees ever recorded. That was because Mike Nesmith, who was from San Antonio and a friend of mine, and I played the same folk clubs.

And in the folk era of the '60s and in Texas, bluegrass was an extremely important part of it. I had my own television show in Dallas when I was 17 years old, called Hometown Hootenanny, and I was a regular on the show like a host. And the other regular band on the show was a bluegrass band.

"Murph" talks about the "Cosmic Cowboy" years of early-'70s Austin in a couple of hours.

9 p.m. tonight at Firehouse Saloon, 5930 Southwest Fwy. www.firehousesaloon.com.

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