Inquiring Minds

Michael Martin Murphey: "I Was Always Proud of Texas"

Michael Martin Murphey will not get off the phone. The Texas singer-songwriter, arguably America's foremost ambassador and scholar of traditional cowboy ballads and trail songs, is the kind of person who has answered two or three other questions by the time his interviewer is ready to ask another one.

Murphey was about to play a festival in Arlington (Texas) when Rocks Off talked to him last week, still very much active four decades into a career that brings him to the Firehouse Saloon this evening. It includes the hit 1990 album Cowboy Songs -- real Western-style country music's last stand in Nashville, to hear many people tell it.

But he also wrote the Monkees' hit "What Am I Doing Hanging Around?" (fellow Texan Mike Nesmith is an old buddy of his) and also had a front-row seat at the birth of the "cosmic cowboy" revolution in Austin in the early '70s, a movement that "Murph" probably had as much to do with as anyone else, thanks to his 1972 album Geronimo's Cadillac.

And that's just scratching the surface.

Murphey's latest project is the three-volume Buckaroo Blue Grass project, a continuation of Cowboy Songs that connects the dots between Appalachian and cowboy music -- and thus most American folk music born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

He comes by his songs honestly, too. A sixth-generation Texan and cowboy himself, Murphey also owns ranches in three states, with a herd of 35 brood mares and two studs. He raises the horses in Wisconsin, trains them in Colorado, but, he says, "You'll never find a better state to sell horses than Texas."

Here we go...

Rocks Off: What sparked your interest in cowboy music?

Michael Martin Murphey: I grew up with it. It's part of my culture. I sing cowboy music for the same reason B.B. King sings the blues: I was born to it. B.B. King will tell you his relatives picked cotton in the South, and they sang the gospel music that really was the foundation of the blues. I grew up around ranchers and farmers in Texas, and they sang cowboy music.

I'm not talking about Roy Rogers and Gene Autry's music from the 1930s, '40s and '50s; [my ancestors] sang cowboy music that came from the 19th century. I never really knew why, though, that we knew all those songs.

It turns out they were passed down hand to hand, yes, but if it hadn't have been for [Houston Press Staff Writer John Nova Lomax's great-grandfather] John Lomax at the University of Texas publishing a collection of cowboy music with an introduction by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, called Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp, it never would have been widely known what all the verses were.

You think, if that was 1910, he was definitely talking to 19th-century cowboys, in Texas. He collected most of his stuff in Texas. In 1908, of course, there was a smaller collection by Jack Thorpe, who was from New York. He collected most of his stuff in eastern New Mexico and Texas, so Texas pretty much invented the whole thing. It was the original Texas music.

RO: How far back does cowboying go in your family?

MMM: The Murpheys came to East Texas in 1858. They were ranchers and farmers, about five generations going back. They were not ranchers and farmers when they first came in here, although when you think about it, pretty much everybody had livestock in 1858 (chuckles).

They probably didn't even think about themselves as ranchers and farmers, and they probably had more cattle or livestock than the average small farmer or rancher does today. That's just what you did. You had a cow that you milked in the backyard, and you had a garden, or you had something like that in the background that you had access to, usually a relative's.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray