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.
RO: How did cowboy music become kind of a lifelong project for you?
MMM: I've done a lot of different kinds of music in my life. Through it all, and through my college years and everything, I've always worn cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and told everybody I'm from Texas. A lot of us who left the state to go other places, as I did to go to UCLA after I spent two years at North Texas, a lot of us were not proud of Texas and we were embarrassed by it, and tried to cover it up because in my era Lyndon Johnson was president and he was heavily maligned for not stopping the Vietnam war.
If you remember, or I don't know how old you are, to have a cowboy hat and cowboy boots on in the registration line at UCLA was tantamount to causing yourself a lot of grief. But I did not take that attitude. I was always proud of Texas. I always loved being from Texas. As soon as I got done doing what I needed to get done in California, I moved back to Texas -- although I didn't go home, I went to Austin. But I returned back to my roots.
Through my career, I've done a lot of different kinds of music. I don't consider that a rancher or cowboy is relegated to only honky-tonk music or church music. Don't get me wrong -- I love both of those forms of music, and sing them often, and consider them to be at the roots of my culture. But I also love jazz, I love Celtic music, I love rock and roll, I love pop music. And I've done 'em all.
But I returned back in 1989 -- sorry for the long answer -- but I kept on collecting cowboy songs, and I was interested in them all through my career. In 1989, I didn't like the direction country music was taking. I saw a trend that stirred me, so I went to my record company and asked them if I could return to my roots in traditional cowboy music, both contemporary cowboy music and the old-fashioned stuff.
And the only guy who supported me at the whole label, oddly enough, was the guy who was in charge of record promotion [and] getting played on the radio. He said, "Murph, if you're going to do that, we're not going to be able to get this music on the radio very easily, so what I suggest you do is you create a collection and you put all the classic songs on there, as well as some contemporary stuff, and we'll try to get the contemporary stuff played. He said, "I don't think it's gonna go to No. 1, but you can probably get it into the Top 10."
Sure enough, "Cowboy Logic" came out and was a hit in the entire West, but when you got east of the Mississippi stations didn't want to play it, because Nashville did not want to support what was going on in Texas.
Nashville has never been willing to admit that Texas drives country music harder and stronger than any other market. If you lop Texas and Oklahoma out of the picture, about 90 percent of the records that come out of Nashville would never have been made.
RO: It seems like not much has changed.
MMM: That's right.
Stay tuned for Part 2 with "Murph" in a couple of hours.
9 p.m. tonight at Firehouse Saloon, 5930 Southwest Fwy. www.firehousesaloon.com.
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