Michael Martin Murphey: ‘I can’t justify singing the music of the people who come from rural areas and provide the world with food and fiber without standing up for our way of life, our rights and our vision of the land.’

‘Activism Works!’
Michael Martin Murphey goes to the wall for a farmer in Wisconsin and makes a difference. Now it’s a calling.

By David McGee

A few weeks ago an email from Michael Martin Murphey arrived unexpectedly in my gmail In box. I’ve been friends with Murph since the mid-‘70s, and know him to be a man of strong convictions and moral courage (and vulnerable on a racquetball court to ceiling shots bouncing high over his head, driving him frantically towards the back wall in a futile attempt to make a return—the last time we played, many moons ago, I recall his telling remark: “I was doing okay until you started pulling that aerial shit on me.”) But even given this knowledge, his email struck me as more urgent and resolved than the usual Murph missive. It read:

Here’s a link to an interview that will help explain what I’m doing with my music career as a form of activism. I can’t justify singing the music of the people who come from rural areas and provide the world with food and fiber without standing up for our way of life, our rights and our vision of the land.

Not a word about his fine new Buckaroo Blue Grass II album, a revisiting, in bluegrass form, of some of his most beloved songs, including “Wildfire” and “Cosmic Cowboy,” in a bluegrass style, with a supporting cast featuring some of the best musicians in the contemporary field: Rob Ickes, Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, Audie Blaylock, Andy Leftwich, Pat Flynn, Charlie Cushman, Craig Nelson, Andy Hall, Matt Pierson, Troy Engle, with his son and producer Ryan Murphey (whose idea this was in the first place) on rhythm guitar. As a sequel to last year’s Buckaroo Blue Grass, it’s a big winner. About which more later.

What all this is about is a stepping up on Murph’s part of something he’s been doing pretty much since he walked away from the hitmaking romantic country balladeer he had become in the early ‘80s to embrace fully the cowboy culture, lifestyle and music—and amazingly, became successful at it when no one—least of all the executives at Warner Bros. Nashville, who tried to talk him out of it—believed he could. Hey, Si, se pueda, baby! Even out of the spotlight, though, Murph was not the usual artist striking a pose; he was walking it like he talked it, settling down on a ranch in New Mexico for years, raising horses, tending the land, and supporting those who did the same. A few years ago he relocated to what is now the 3M Rocking Ranch in Wisconsin and became even more active in advocating for farmers’ and ranchers rights. When the government moved in and tried to take two large ranches in the southwest—one headed by Wayne Hage in Nevada, the other by Kit Laney in New Mexico—Murph helped them defend their rights. (The controversial Hage, who died of cancer in 2006, battled the feds for nearly two decades over public lands and private property rights, and won a partial victory in the U.S. Claims Court in 2002 when a judge ruled he could use the water and forage on some of the federal land where he held a grazing permit in central Nevada; Laney, whose contretemps with the feds over the right to graze cattle in the Gila National Forest inspired Murph’s “Storm Over the Rangeland (The Ballad of Kit Laney,” pleaded guilty in 2004 to two misdemeanors to avoid facing trial on felony charges of assaulting Forest Service offiers; he is now back to ranching in New Mexico.)

The same thing is happening again in Wisconsin, as the state is trying to seize, by eminent domain, 10 acres cutting right through the center of Mark Lepke’s farm (including the land the Lepke family house occupies), to make way for a new Interstate linking the small towns of Viroqua and Westby, where, Murph insists, the traffic now is mostly Amish in their horse drawn carriages.

amish“In the case of this road in Wisconsin, getting down to a very local deal, they wanted to widen the road to put a bike path in, and to widen the road between two towns that have economic horror stories going on,” Murphey says. “Now even the Chamber of Commerce closed down in Westby—the Chamber of Commerce couldn’t even afford to have a building, and they’re building and widening a road between Westby and Viroqua because of ‘traffic problems.’ I live there and I can tell you, there is no traffic problem—Amish people drive their carriages up and down that road. You know, it was basically just a bunch of contractors who got that job, and Wisconsin is notorious for that, but so are so many other places.”

In typical Murph fashion, he and other farmers and ranchers in the area quickly formed the Farmers’ Freedom Agriculture Alliance and scheduled a benefit (“The Farmers’ Freedom Concert”) to protest unfair land acquisitions, not only in Wisconsin but all across the western and southwestern states, where, he says, the practice is becoming commonplace, and being carried out completely below the mainstream media radar. “It has been very effectively suppressed,” Murphey charges.

murphyOn the issue at hand, he is passionate and righteously outraged. “It is rampant. It’s everywhere,” he states. “I could spend hours on the phone with you telling you about cases, from Indian people who have lost their grazing rights on their own reservations because of this stuff, all the way through to people whose homes have been taken by eminent domain, just for real estate developers, with the state getting involved. It goes way back—read a book called Storm Over the Rangelands, which was written by Wayne Hage, and he pretty much goes through the whole history of how eminent domain was twisted and misused in this country to take it way away from its original constitutional purpose.”

Lepke’s situation is especially odious, not only because of his land being seized, but owing to what he was offered in cash compensation for his property, which was nothing even in the vicinity of the State Department of Transportation estimate of the property's worth at $1 million dollars. Moreover, the state then pulled a Godfather II stunt on Lepke, balking at not only paying him anything close to the value of his property and demanding further that he be out of his home by March 20 or start paying the state $820 a month to rent their own home, in addition to the mortgage, taxes and insurance they already pay on the home.

To Lepke, the money is irrelevant—“I need the land to survive,” says the farmer. “How do you make someone whole again after you’ve cut out their heart?”

Murphey agrees, and hastens to de-politicize the issue. "This is not about Liberal or Conservative, left or right, Democrat or Republican. Anyone whose property is taken by eminent domain should be justly compensated—a principal upon which the U.S. Constitution is founded. Farmers and ranchers should be treated with even more respect. When a farm or ranch is taken, it's a tragic loss of food production for the nation and the world, as well.

“I see it as a bureaucracy getting in bed in corruption with developers and contractors, and exploiting eminent domain so they can line their pockets at the expense of peoples’ homes and private property. So I don’t want anybody to see this as a right wing, left wing thing. It’s not. This is about just outright corruption. It happened under the Bush Administration, it’s happening now and it happened before that. It’s a runaway bureaucracy, is what it is. And bureaucracy being paid off.”

‘I don’t want anybody to see this as a right wing, left wing thing. It’s not. This is about just outright corruption. It happened under the Bush Administration, it’s happening now and it happened before that.’ (Photo: Andy Byron)

Consequently, Murphey and the Farmers’ Freedom Agriculture Alliance set aside March 14 for a VIP Farmers’ Freedom Fighters Brunch, followed by dances at the historical Cashton Community Hall. Murph was the featured entertainment, performing two shows during the day. Tickets were priced at $50 for the brunch/concert combo, or $20 for the dance only.

“We’re not trying to fight the bypass,” Murphey told WCOW Radio the week before the show. “We’re trying to get just and fair compensation for the farmers up and down the road.”

Asked what the fate of Mr. Lepke is post-benefit, Murph was quick with an enthusiastic response: “I just want to put out the good word that activism works.”

The day after the benefit the Wisconsin Farm Bureau met with Lepke and offered legal resources and the Bureau’s attorneys to fight for the farmer’s just compensation. “It’s not a done deal—he still has to leave by August,” Murphey advises, “and who knows if they’re going to drag this out? So this could also be a ruse to drag it out long enough that people forget.”

Which is exactly why Murph is not leaving the scene of the crisis. Another in a series of events supporting Lepke’s cause is already scheduled, all aimed at making sure this matter stays on the front burner of the public’s consciousness. The effectiveness of the small fundraiser, Murph knows from experience, can be quite pronounced.

“I encourage small fundraisers in the smallest venues, with a bluegrass band or a folk artist, or somebody, playing in a situation where you only get 50 or a hundred people,” he explains. “The publicity it gets raises so much more awareness. We stopped a coal dust dump in Wisconsin the same way. They were going to take out five heritage farms by eminent domain, and start dumping all the coal waste that came from the local electric power plant along the Mississippi. We got it stopped by little local fundraisers, so that’s what gave me the idea to put this one for Mark Lepke. You don’t have to be Willie Nelson doing Farm Aid to make this happen. In fact, some times the smaller the better. A packed house with a lot of publicity about the issue is always better than trying to go big and have 10,000 people there, then only a thousand show up. But a 500-seat venue, where another 500 couldn’t get in and were standing around outside trying to get in is really something that the media takes note of.”

A man so cognizant as Murph is of American history, and especially the history of the southwest and western U.S., could be expected to view in a broader perspective this ongoing, stealth operation of seizing private lands. He’s quick to disavow any intent on his part to fight the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management or the National Park Service. Rather, his sights are set on disrupting the cozy, environmentally destructive alliance between developers and the government that greases their skids. “This is about how private enterprise that’s corrupt gets involved with a bureaucracy and the government and exploits it,” he states. “You once had some of the greatest ranches in the world in the Grand Tetons area, and now when you go into Jackson Hole they’re all gone. It’s all about condos and development there. What they did was they made that a national park and who ended up with all the land on the fringe that bordered all this? You can say, 'Buy a lot in this subdivision and it borders national forest.' And you can get ten times more for it, because look at the playground that is your back yard.”

‘I know people toss around the word ‘country’ music just like they toss around political words like ‘values,’ ‘family values,’ and it means nothing to them. But it does mean something to me. I have lived that life all my life.’

As for a musician’s part in all this, well, once more Murph takes the long view, seeing almost an historical imperative for the artist as activist, a calling he is embracing with a vigor like never before in his career. He is adamant in his belief that country musicians, playing music originally rooted in and reflecting the rural life, especially that of farmers and ranchers, ought to stand up when those people are threatened in any way.

“Now, I know people toss around the word ‘country’ music just like they toss around political words like ‘values,’ ‘family values,’ and it means nothing to them,” he says. “But it does mean something to me. I have lived that life all my life. My entire career I’ve lived in the country, lived in the mountains and on the prairies and the plains, I’ve done some farming, but mostly ranching. I produce music of that way of life and I don’t think it’s possible to do the art right without living it. You go back to the origins of the Grand Ole Opry and to the hill country people, or Appalachia, or look at the people out west a hundred years ago, this is where it all came from. And to see that way of life under fire, or being denigrated, is something that offends me as a representative of that culture.

“I just want to make sure everybody understands that I feel the music is so vitally connected to all these issues that we really make a mistake when we just get up there and pick and sing and don’t think about where it all comes from.”

Michael Martin Murphey performs ‘Summer Ranges’ with the Black Irish Band’s Patrick Michael Karnahan on accordion. Murph’s warm tribute to Irish cowboys.

Buckaroo Blue Grass II and Murph’s Cowboy Logic: Interview

‘The entire album is songs about a longing to go beyond where you are now and go over the next horizon’

On this day this conversation took place, Murph called me at the moment I was deeply immersed in one of the Waylon Jennings reissues reviewed elsewhere in this issue. When the talk turned to the music on Buckaroo Blue Grass II, I mentioned how he had disrupted my Waylon groove, and off down Amnesia Lane we went. Because its songs—all but one (“Running Gun,” by Jim and Tompall Glaser, classically realized on record by another famous acolyte of cowboy songs, Marty Robbins) being Murph originals—span a wide timeframe of the the artist's career, it lent itself to reflection on what the songs meant to him then and now, and where he was at in his journey when particular tunes were introduced originally, going back to the early days of the Austin scene of which he became the standard bearer and most successful commercial artist. The memories are ripe and vivid. The conversation went as follows.

You’re taking me away from Waylon Jennings.

Murph: It’s my belief that Crazy Heart is a movie about Waylon Jennings, except that Waylon never got that down and out. No question that Jeff Bridges studied him more than he studied Robert Duvall.

When I was in Austin, I clearly remember Willie Nelson walking into a bar where we were playing, in a sharkskin suit, clean shaven, short hair and looking at us on stage with long hair, steel guitars and fiddles and stuff, singing country songs like “Backslider’s Wine,” and you could see a light bulb going off over his head. Eddie Wilson, who had Armadillo World Headquarters, came backstage and said, “I want to introduce you to somebody,” and I said, “I already know who that is.” He said, “You do?” “Yeah! I’m a fan, Eddie, that’s Willie Nelson. I’ve been listening to his music for years. I wouldn’t have country music in my show if I hadn’t been listening to country music all my life. It’s not a new kind of gimmick I’m working with here, but it certainly isn’t getting me anywhere in Nashville.” So then Eddie says, “Okay, well, I’m thinking about booking Willie Nelson into Armadillo World Headquarters. Do you think it will work?” And I said, “Absolutely.” And Willie turned to Eddie and said, “I don’t think it will work until I start looking more like the audience.” Six months later, he looked like us, like the rest of the kids that were hanging around Austin. But you know what? People mistake me telling that story for trying to imply that Willie ripped us off. He never changed what he did. All he did was change his appearance. He kept right on singing “Crazy” and all of his other stuff, and people went nuts for it. And then the older audience was suddenly united with the younger audience in Austin, and that’s what made Austin happen. It was awesome.

Waylon then came down to check out the scene, but he was having a better run than Willie. You have to remind people that we were all still playing honky tonks and beer joints, the cosmic cowboys and the older guys who got into the movement from Nashville. Waylon never did move down there. I don’t even think he liked being called an outlaw. “Don’t you think this outlaw thing’s done got outta hand?” I agreed with him—at one point the outlaws owned the bank they claimed to be robbing!

There is a reference in your liner notes to Buckaroo Blue Grass II about getting out of the “over-hyped” Austin music scene and it got me to thinking about that time. I was at the University of Oklahoma then. The music press has made a lot of noise over time about Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark being the icons of the scene, but at OU, only a few hundred miles north of Austin, we never heard of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, but we knew who you were. In fact, it was through your music that I found Townes Van Zandt, because there was so much talk about you that I started looking into what was going on down there. I don’t think you’ve ever been given proper credit for sort of leading the charge out of there.

Murph: Well, you know, I was, I don’t know, I was politically incorrect because once the thing took off I had a falling out with some people I’m very good friends with now, at Buddy magazine. All of sudden everything was “We’re the mighty Texas music scene, Texas made this happen.” I’m sorry, Texas did not make it happen; what made it happen was the people that were involved. And Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark were songwriters but were not ever known as people who could draw a crowd at a concert. They were the songwriters in the movement. Jerry Jeff Walker, in order to appear more like a Texan, started recording songs like “Desperadoes Waiting for A Train,” and we all knew it was great material. I didn’t perceive myself as leading any kind of charge, I’ve always been suspicious of a scene, and I don’t like getting caught up in a trend. So my creed is the same as Clint Eastwood said recently: “In my heart lies a maverick. Any time there’s a trend, I run the other way as fast as possible.” So I’m really nothing but just a contrarian.

Michael Martin Murphey at the Texas Music Festival in Stephensville, TX. Murph relates the origins of ‘Cosmic Cowboy’ and other tales from his career and the cowboy life, and performs a warm acoustic version of ‘I Come From a Long Line of Love.’ And offers this sage advice: ‘When you get married, make sure you marry a girl who can run a Bobcat and back a trailer.’

That does bring us to Buckaroo Blue Grass II in a way. I’ve detected a bit of a pattern here and I’m wondering how you went about selecting the material. This is how I’ve broken it down: you’ve got two songs by artists you admire, one by Marty Robbins, and “Backslider’s Wine,” which is your song, but in your liner notes you make a long overdue acknowledgment of Gary Stewart for his version; there are two songs in which Guy Dull Knife figures prominently, “Medicine Man” and “Blue Sky Riding Song”; there are two specifically inspired by or about horses, “Wildfire” and “Running Blood”; two inspired by the land and people on it, “Desert Rat” and “Southwestern Pilgrimage”; two songs that I consider personal statements by you, obviously “Cosmic Cowboy,” and “Renegade”; and two songs that don’t fit neatly into any of those categories, those being “Rollin’ Nowhere” and “Swans Against The Sun,” “Swans” arguably eding into personal statement territory. I don’t know that you were consciously trying to do the Noah’s Ark of Michael Martin Murphey songs and getting two of each, but exactly how did you go about picking these particular songs?

Murph: I didn’t pick the material; my son Ryan picked all the material. I turned the entire project over to him on number two. I had a lot of input on number one, but I told him I didn’t want to have any input on number two. I said, “You’re the producer. We’ve done well with this album. It’s all because of your direction.” He constantly pressured me on the first album; he said, “Dad, you gotta stick primarily with your own material. You can cut a few songs from outside, but you have to stick with your own statements. I’m gonna call you on this, and this has to be about you being a bluegrass songwriter. If you do too many outside songs, that’s not gonna cut through.” But then I did give him some ideas about how some songs could be bluegrass songs, songs I knew bluegrass bands had done, but on some songs he said, “Dad, I think I know a way I can make these work with an all-acoustic approach.” I didn’t really believe it at first, but it worked. Ryan’s basically saved my career here. He grew up listening to those songs and these are the songs he shared with his dad when he was a little boy.

Obviously there’s a retrospective flavor here, but one thing that interests me about you revisiting these songs—some of which date back to your very early years—is whether any have come to mean something much different for you now than when you first cut them.

Murph: Well, I think my son did pick patterns that he sees in my soul and in my mind and heart that maybe I am too close to see the big picture of. But there’s a gypsy in here. The entire album is songs about a longing to go beyond where you are now and go over the next horizon. And looking back over my life, it’s true that I’ve been a drifter, a gypsy, never really settled down. Even as we speak right now, the reason I called 45 minutes late is because I was out looking at some ranch land I just bought in Colorado and we’re moving onto that place. No cell service out there. I don’t know, there’s something in me that wants to keep moving around. I settled down for awhile, and then the scene that I moved there for changes, and I go. So I’m trying to keep the same feeling all the time and that’s why I keep moving around. The neighborhood changes, you know.

When I moved to Austin, we were all in it together, we were all great friends, we were getting together passing the guitar around; Jerry Jeff, even before there was a music scene perceived to be gathering in Texas, he was writing on napkins, saying, “What do you think of this? ‘I knew a man, Bojangles, and he’d dance for you.’” I was at the party where he got the napkins out that he wrote that on, and everybody was telling him it was great, “a little bit long.” Jerry Jeff said, “I don’t know how I can shorten it.” We said, “Neither do we, so just do it.” B.W. Stevenson was there, Johnny Vandiver was there, I was there, can’t remember some of the other people who were at that party. And that was back in the ‘60s before there was ever anything called an Austin music scene. So there’s a drifter in me. I moved to Austin to be around that scene that I loved, then some of those people moved away and a lot of carpetbaggers moved in, trying to kind of cash in on the scene, trying to appear to have been there all along when they really weren’t there at all. They weren’t Texas in their soul or any other way. Just irritating stuff like suburban housing developments, hyping the fact that they were somehow linked to the Austin music scene. Barton Springs Woods—and there’s no springs there and no woods left anymore. That’s when I had to get up and go, because I’ve always been seeking just a nice, quiet neighborhood with people I have a fellow feeling with; when it changes I have to leave. I hope I don’t have to leave this time. But the transient nature of my career and the transient nature of my thinking and my life is very evident here, and I think there’s a little boy who missed his dad being on the road a whole lot. That’s what I hear in the album.

Michael Martin Murphey, ‘Cosmic Cowboy,’ one of the personal statements of Murph’s career, reprised on Buckaroo Blue Grass 2, and performed here at the Woodstock Opera House, Woodstock, IL, January 26, 2008

Despite the transient nature of your life, isn’t there also in these songs a continuity of values that you embrace as a human being? And I note in your liner notes you talk about being raised in the southern Baptist church and some wisdom that your mother used to impart to you that you didn’t get right away but eventually came around to embrace it.

Murph: Yeah, that’s what “Backslider’s Wine” is about. It’s basically my mom telling me, “Son, fight for your rights, but don’t fight for right.” In other words, don’t become an ideologue and start fighting for something because it’s a trend or an “ism.” Just fight for your rights. And that’s pretty much the way I’ve lived my life. But I didn’t get it then, and I didn’t get it until I woke up face down on a barroom floor and realized I wasn’t free, I was a slave to playing the honky tonks in Los Angeles and being told every night, “You guys just can’t play that much original material. You have to sing Glen Campbell’s latest hit, and Merle Haggard’s latest hit, in order to get a job in this bar.” And we didn’t want to be copy bands, so we moved back to Texas. Because Texas, for some reason—and the reason I keep drifting back to Texas—is because Texas always had a wide open attitude about new material and songwriting and creativity. There’s always some place you can go, where you can play all original material and people are happy with that. For a while it got terribly defined, and the outlaw movement got too defined, and then it was progressive country, then radio tried to get a format going based around that, and suddenly the poor old Nashville people were kicked out. Oh, man, Ray Price, he’s not hip anymore; it’s Willie Nelson now—in spite of the fact that Willie Nelson played in Ray Price’s band and loved Ray Price, and wouldn’t dream of doing anything to hurt Ray Price. It’s always out with the old and in with the new, then out with the new and in with the old.

When you came back to Texas after your time in Los Angeles, after your “What Am I Doing Hanging Around” had been cut by the Monkees, was there any kind of resentment directed at you because of your commercial success in California, however slight it was?

Murph: None that I ever felt; it might have been there, but I didn’t feel it. Like I said, it was just one great big songwriting party down there, and everybody was welcome to try their hand at it. There was very little sense of competition or jealousy. If anything, I was kind of welcomed in with open arms, because I had been to Hollywood and written songs for five years and had some success, and I was coming back to Texas and bringing that with me. There was more of a sense of being welcomed in than jealousy because of it. I always looked at it that I was grateful any time a fellow artist opened a door for me to do anything, and I only hope at this point in my life that there’s somebody walking around out there, or up there, who says, “Michael Martin Murphey opened up a door for me.” I think you have to hold the door for people and say, “Come on in,” instead of being the last one in and then shutting them in.

Did you have a hand in selecting the great musicians on this album?

Murph: Yeah, I did have a hand in that.

One thing I thought was different on this album was how you give the musicians a lot of room to do their thing. There’s much more latitude given to the players to strut their stuff.

Murph: That’s always been my style. I like a record where there’s some jammin’ and some playin’ going on. If you go back to Blue Sky, Night Thunder, there’s a tremendous amount of free-form playing on the record. We created a lot of spaces on that record for people to let loose. It makes for longer cuts, so during any era when records can squeeze back to two and a half minutes or three minutes, you lose that on the single, but you don’t have to lose it on the album. Now that you have a lot of digital downloading, what you’re losing is jamming. It’s all about the single song and you have to keep it a certain length, people hear it on the radio and they download it. Well, you know, then they don’t get the rest of the album where everybody’s jammin’ like crazy. That’s what I’ve always loved about the whole concept of an album, but I’m probably just an old timer. That’s why I’ve always loved country music, because we go in and make it up as we go along. It’s like jazz. Whereas pop music is so arranged. I’ve done some things in pop that have been very arranged, and I’ve enjoyed it, it’s always the way to go if you’re looking to try to package something more for airplay, but I’ve always had a real challenge doing that. Once in awhile you find that perfect song like “What’s Forever For” or any number of songs I’ve recorded that were written by other people that just had this spare kind of background, very arranged and all the licks were kind of organized. That’s a way to package things for a hit. I like jamming, just getting in there and playing. In my show I don’t want the guy to play the same lead guitar part that he played on the record. I want him to play something different; I want every show to have a sense of being a jazz band.

You mentioned “What’s Forever For.” That’s from your Capitol years, when you had a very different image. You were cast as a romantic balladeer, and you were extremely successful at it, although it was something quite different in style from your early years, fresh out of Texas, and dramatically different from the style you adopted—or returned to—when you left Capitol in 1985 and signed with Warner Bros. But those are rarely songs you revisit. How do you regard that period of your career?

Murph: I enjoyed, it was fun and I’m not saying I’ll never do it again. Love songs are a thing, and when you do ‘em, you do a bunch of ‘em together and it’s a certain part of the human soul that you’re addressing—you’re addressing a relationship that is 99 percent of pop music, what most people want to hear. It’s okay to do that. It’s okay to do a commercial for Budweiser that’s one minute long, too, if you believe in the product. I’ve got no quarrel with commercial music; I just never did it that well. The songs I wrote and calculated out to try to be hits generally weren’t, and the songs that I thought would never make it—like “Wildfire”—were the hits.

Did you have any second thoughts about revisiting “Wildfire”? It’s an iconic song, it’s your song, everybody knows “Wildfire.” Why return to it, especially in such a different form?

Murph: I didn’t have any misgivings about doing it again, because at this point in my life—and I keep saying that because I just turned 65—I’m down the road here—and as J.J. Cale sang, “I’m goin’ over 60/I’m older than most/Won’t be long/Before I’m nothin’ but a ghost…” If you don’t have that album that Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale made, you gotta go get it. The theme of the album is about getting older, and it’s just a howl. “My kids don’t call me/it makes me blue/they don’t call me/until the bills are due.” So anyway, the perspective now of being older and saying, “What do we do now?” Well, old folks remember things; we go back and revisit our memories. And don’t take that away from me; I like that.

Murph with daughters Karen (left) and Morgan Murphey: ‘My girls outride me, they outrope me, they outwork cattle—about the only thing I can do better than them is heavy work, just loading 85 feed sacks. But that’s getting harder every year! Gotta marry a woman who can run a Bobcat and back a trailer.’ (Photo:Andy Byron)

And at this point, if I’ve learned anything it’s don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t take the project too seriously. It’s a record of some songs, and it’s some people getting together and having some fun and playing together. Someone says, “Hey, man, let’s put a dobro on ‘Wildfire.’” “Okay!” “Hey, let’s do a bluegrass version of ‘Wildfire.’” So I don’t know, man. I’ll tell you how “Wildfire” got on this record: my son picked it, and I said, “Well, son, how is that gonna work out as a bluegrass song?” And he said, “It’s just going to be an acoustic version.” I said, “I don’t know what else I can do new to the song, but one thing I always wanted to do was sing it with a female artist. So many girls and women like that song—women have this connection with horses, and my marriage is proof of that. I’ve invested a lot of money into buying ponies for girls, because they like horses. I don’t care if they have rings through their noses and dye their blonde hair black and have tattoos up and down their arms, girls, when they get around horses, it’s a mothering thing that happens, a softness that cowboys just don’t have. They’re great riders, they’re great horse trainers, they’re great competitors on horseback, which is probably the reason why the PRCA ran ‘em out and told ‘em they couldn’t do anything but barrel race. They probably would have beat the pants off every guy in the place. My girls outride me, they outrope me, they outwork cattle—about the only thing I can do better than them is heavy work, just loading 85 feed sacks. But that’s getting harder every year! Gotta marry a woman who can run a Bobcat and back a trailer, man.

Over the years it’s been mostly kids and little girls who come up after the show, or pass a note backstage, “Would you play ‘Wildfire’ for my daughter,” or, “Would you play ‘Wildfire’ for my mom,” or “I have a horse named Wildfire.” But what I always wanted to do was do the song with a female, sing it with a female voice, but I just never could find the right person. Then when I signed with Rural Rhythm, they sent me a sampler with all the artists on the label, and I heard Carrie Hassler and said, “She’s the one.” Everybody said, “Carrie Hassler is a real hardcore bluegrass singer.” I said, “But I hear Patsy Cline in her; I hear the old-time country vocals; I hear Loretta Lynn there. And I think she can bring out the country in the song,” and boy did she ever. I had to put the key down one whole key in order to do it where she could sing the melody, because she sings a whole octave higher than I do, and if I sing it in my high tenor range, it was above what she could do. She’s not a coloratura soprano. So I took it down one key and it worked. The central character of “Wildfire” is a girl. So to have a female voice on it is great, but it’s a story song told by a man about a girl, so we had to pick the lines real carefully that she came in on. It just worked out great, and I think she really made it more of a country song than it’s ever been. It is about the wide-open spaces, it was inspired by wide-open spaces, and it’s a song about freedom. She just soars when she sings it. What a sweetheart; what a great artist.

Michael Martin Murphey at the Lone Cowboy Concert

Buckaroo Blue Grass II is newly released, and I know you’ve got a Cowboy Songs Volume 6 coming soon. With all of your ranching duties, your traveling, how do you find time to do these records so quickly?

Murph: I pick the best musicians in the world; I pick my heroes, and honestly, I spend the money. If you want to have a winning baseball team, you gotta spend the money and get the great players in there. If you don’t, you’re not going to win.

So you’re subscribing to the bluegrass version of the New York Yankees’ philosophy.

Murph: I subscribe to the philosophy of getting a guy who can hit a home run. And all the rest of the guys ought to be able to at least get base hits, even the pitcher.


Buckaroo Blue Grass II is available at

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