Michael Martin Murphey: The Cosmic Cowboy Years

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Texas singer-songwriter and real by-god cowboy Michael Martin Murphey has already walked Rocks Off through a healthy bit of the past 100 years of American folk music this morning, as well as a good bit of his own. But dissatisfied with the folk scene he found out in late-'60s Southern California, he moved to Austin and fell in with some other longhairs who decided (sometimes at their peril) they'd rather play country music instead. Today his 1972 album Geronimo's Cadillac is regarded as a landmark of the "cosmic cowboy" movement/moment, right up there with Jerry Jeff Walker's Viva Terlingua! and Willie Nelson's Shotgun Willie.

Rocks Off: There's been some media attention about the 40th anniversary of the cosmic cowboy movement this year. What are a few of your best memories from that time?

MMM (chuckles): Well, I guess my best memories are what a free-form time it was, when you were terribly restricted in being in L.A. or New York, or being in Detroit and playing Motown. You were terribly restricted by the genre you chose. But when you came to Texas, the audience was totally free-form. They'd listen to classical music and go to the ballet, and go listen to Albert King play the blues the next night. They all considered it culture.

They liked Willie Nelson and Seals & Crofts. They liked the Beatles, but they also liked Greezy Wheels and Marcia Ball. The young bands that came to Texas at that time, that were my age, we played it all. We played everything.

I just found a poster that I sent to the Southwestern Collection archives in Lubbock for the Crossroads Music Collection of an event I put on that I had totally forgotten about, called "The Cosmic Cowboy Symphony and Barbecue," at the Armadillo World Headquarters.

I played my music and had a symphony back me up. I lost money on that deal, but I just wanted to hear the music, so I hired a bunch of classical musicians and had a bunch of charts written. And to this day, I still love to play with symphonies. I'm not losing money when I do it now, but I don't make a lot of money when I play with symphonies. I just think a symphony evokes the spirit of the American West in the human soul better than any other sound.

RO: Is it true that Willie Nelson grew out his beard because you had one?

MMM: You know, I came here, and Jerry Jeff Walker was here, and then Willie showed up some time after we did. Willie Nelson says that's true in his own autobiography, so the answer is yes. But I remember the first time I met Willie Nelson in person. He walked into Mother Earth, which was a very important kind of hippie/cowboy venue in Austin.

We were playing there and Eddie Wilson, who owned the Armadillo World Headquarters, brought Willie in. The Armadillo was already up and running, and Jerry Jeff and I had both played there, and a number of other Texas songwriters and bands had played there.

They couldn't afford to hire names. We were mostly playing to students. Eddie was older than us, and I had met him when I was at UCLA. He was stationed in the military out there, and he came to visit me when I was in college. He said, "Hey, Murph, when you come back to Texas when you get out of college, I'm thinking about starting a nightclub."

Fast-forward to when he walks in with Willie Nelson, who's got a sharkskin suit on and short hair, and I thought he was a narc. I thought he was a policeman, and half of my band was about to be arrested. We were not druggies, my band was never into that, but you have to understand that possession of one marijuana cigarette in Texas could get you thrown into jail for 25 years at that time. I smoked marijuana for six months, but I hated it. I drank, but I never inhaled.

Willie walks in and he saw a bunch of guys playing country music with steel guitars and fiddles, and we had long hair and beards and a young audience. The next time I saw Willie Nelson, he had long hair and a beard and looked like us.

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

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