Michael Martin Murphey: ‘I’m looking for tall grass and cool water, wherever they may be.’
Murph Rides Again
On a new installment of his Cowboy Songs series, Michael Martin Murphey considers the land, a lone man on it and the metaphysical link between the two
By David McGee
June 2010. Yours truly is exploring Death Valley with my two songs. After three days of hiking into the nether regions of the National Park under glorious azure skies in glorious 110-degree temperatures, we were preparing to head back to Las Vegas to catch our flight home when we stopped one last time in the Furnace Creek Ranch General Store to pick up some food, drinks and souvenirs. As soon as we entered we heard a familiar smooth tenor singing the soaring chorus of a song we knew well:
From the word go
I knew I’d found
Where the road ends
And love begins
From the word go
I knew I’d never go again
It was Michael Martin Murphey singing his hit “From the Word Go” (not a Murph original), originally released on his exemplary 1990 album River of Time, although the version we were hearing was a superb re-recording of it for his 2001 Playing Favorites collection (all-new versions of top-drawer Murph classics). For the boys the song brought back a flood of cherished memories of summer cross-country car trips we had made with the ultimate destination being Death Valley. Each of these jaunts had their own soundtrack, courtesy home tapes I had made of the best new country songs of the day with some old rock ‘n’ roll, blues and R&B mixed in. “From the Word Go” became the de facto theme of our 1991 odyssey across our fair land, a song that always brought back great times we had enjoyed together in the sanctity of the unstoppable Chevy Cavalier station wagon that served as our home on wheels as we connected with our great nation’s history on its back roads and blue highways.
So upon recognizing “From the Word Go” once we were in General Store that day, my oldest son, Travis, turned, smiling broadly. “This has to be the greatest place on earth to be right now,” he said. “In Death Valley, with Murph singing ‘From the Word Go.'”
When I related this anecdote to Murph after interviewing him for this cover story in early August, he let out hearty laugh. “You have to put that in the story!” he exclaimed after he caught his breath. “I want everyone to know I was on heavy rotation in Death Valley!”
For the legions of fans around the world that love the old west, the land and the cowboy culture in general, the music of Michael Martin Murphey is always on heavy rotation. This has been the case since 1989 when he decided he’d had enough of being a matinee idol country balladeer--even though he had registered a solid run of hits in that guise--and wanted to return to the roots of his raising and the culture he cared most about--farming, ranching and cowboying. He wanted to record an album of classic cowboy songs, but his label, Warners, essentially suggested he had lost control of his faculties and wanted no part of it. Eventually Warners came around, on the condition that Murph promote the Cowboy Songs album himself, because his label had no clue how to sell an album of cowboy songs. So he did. When the dust settled on Murph’s chaps, he was on his way to a gold album built on some outstanding original songs (“Cowboy Logic” actually became a hit single, something no one could have seen coming) and standards of the genre such as “Happy Trails,” “Red River Valley,” “Home On the Range,” and the poet laureate of the western song Bob Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”
In recent years Murph, as chronicled in these pages, has taken only a slight detour into the bluegrass world, where he’s triumphed in his association with the Rural Rhythm label with a pair of Buckaroo Blue Grass albums, which include some of his western songs and earlier hits (“Cosmic Cowboy” is on Buckaroo Blue Grass II) retooled as bluegrass songs.
Now he’s back with his strongest album of cowboy songs since the first one: Tall Grass & Cool Water, subtitled Cowboy Songs VI--Buckaroo Blue Grass III, pretty much brings together on one disc the full dazzling panoply of Murph’s artistic endeavors since 1989. Always an artist who has drawn gifted musicians to his projects, Murph is accompanied on Tall Grass & Cool Water by a bonafide all-star team of players, including Pat Flynn (guitar), Sam Bush (mandolin, fiddle), Andy Leftwich (fiddle, mandolin), Charlie Cushman (banjo), Mike Bubb (upright bass), Troy Engle (fiddle, banjo), Andy Hall (dobro), Craig Nelson (acoustic bass), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and not least of all his son, Ryan Murphey, who produced the disc, and also contributes rhythm guitar and backing vocals. The song selections will surprise no one who has followed the artist over the past couple of decades. After kicking things off with his own statement of purpose and personal testimony in the blazing bluegrass romp of “Texas Cowboy,” Murph eases into a scintillating, sturdy take on Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water.” In fact Bob Nolan’s songs, three of them, are the cornerstone of Tall Grass & Cool Water: Murph also offers a rousing workout on Nolan’s classic railroad song “Away Out There” that captures the raucous energy of Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys’ original treatment but with a spare, stripped down attack (kind of surprising that Murph didn’t include Wills’s closing salutation, “All out for Amarillo! The land of good lookin’ women!”); and employs a lesser-known Nolan gem, the ruminative, melancholy beauty “Blue Prairie,” as a piercing, resigned interior monologue following the tall tales of “The James Gang Trilogy” (two old traditional songs in “The Ballad of Cole Younger” and “The Ballad of Jesse James” preceding “Frank James Farewell,” a song of recent vintage written by Hal Ketchum and Gary Burr and concerning the outlaw’s decision to turn himself in, face his punishment [thanks to the stirring testimony of Confederate General Jo Selby, James was acquitted and walked the straight and narrow the rest of his days] and come to grips in his soul with the foul, evil deeds he had done). The land is a formidable character in many of the songs, whether it’s tormenting the protagonists (as in “Cool Water” with its mirages and unforgiving “barren waste”), pointing them towards new, promising horizons (as does “The Santa Fe Trail”), or summoning rapturous wonder at the sheer, spiritually elevating beauty of it all (“Springtime in the Rockies,” on which Murph is joined in harmony by the warm, dulcet voice of a real find, 20-year-old Carin Mari--pronounced Ka-RIN Marie--who is only starting to make her move in country music but to whom Murph has served as a mentor since she was a lass of nine.
Michael Martin Murphey, ‘Texas Cowboy,’ first song on the album Tall Grass & Cool Water
And not least of all, you have Murph himself. Aging remarkably well, his tenor voice, rich and full of wisdom, tells these stories both with a sense of history and a conviction in the validity of their messages to our own era. It’s important to keep in mind when encountering Murph on record or on stage that he is a man who studied Greek at North Texas and medieval history and literature at UCLA. He understands the historical sweep of the stories he tells and how they relate not only to a moment in time but to the individual’s urges, impulses and unceasing quest for identity from the ancients to the moderns.
Of course with Murph there’s always more than music going on. He not only sings of a certain culture in our country, he has long lived what he sings--he’s a rancher himself, with a spread in Wisconsin and some new land in Beulah, Colorado, where he will build another ranch once a conservation easement comes through. No Johnny-Come-Lately to this world, Murph grew up and worked on a ranch--his grandfather’s ranch--in Texas, and it this experience, and not least of all granddad’s stories and songs, that shaped the boy into the man he is today. In fact, it was one of his grandfather’s stories about a ghost horse of Native American lore said to rescue forlorn desert wanderers that inspired Murph’s mainstream breakout hit, 1975’s “Wildfire,” based on his own dream of the ghost horse.
The connection to the land Murph felt while working his grandfather’s ranch as a child has fueled the man’s activism on behalf of others whose property is under siege--our 2010 cover story detailed how he was lending his name, his voice and his presence to the fight of a fellow Wisconsin farmer, Mark Lepke, to keep the state from seizing his heritage farm by eminent domain for commercial purposes. And only this past May he ventured out to Athol, Kansas, to help raise support for a movement to save the cabin where Brewster Higley wrote “Home On the Range.”
So there’s always a lot going on with Murph, on record and away out there in the land of tall grass and cool water. Here’s the latest report from an important American artist.
It was 1989 when you walked away from a successful career as a mainstream country balladeer and made your first album of cowboy songs. Warners fought you over it, Warners even offered to release you so you could place the album on another label, and finally Warners agreed to release it as long as you would take care of the promotion. That was a career altering move, even more so than your transition from the Cosmic Cowboy phase of the ‘70s when you broke in to the country balladeer with hit after hit in the ‘80s. You’ve never looked back, and now you’re up to Cowboy Songs VI, you’re ranching in Wisconsin and eventually in Colorado, you’ve put yourself on the line advocating for small farmers trying to defend their land against government takeovers, you show up on a stage somewhere and the house is packed. Verily, life is good.
I’m having a lot of fun with it. I’m probably enjoying myself now more with it than I ever have in my life, because the nation, in hard economic times, is starting to get it that the people who live out in the little areas who grow our food and manage our natural resources are fairly critical to our survival—the knowledge they have is critical to our survival. There are a lot of people now growing gardens in their back yards in big cities; there are a lot of people who are definitely taking a look at the price of groceries and also looking at what quality of food they’re getting. That’s what I do—I sing the music of the people who do that. I spent a good deal of time last week trying to figure out if I was going to put nitrogen fertilizer on my corn in Wisconsin. That’s my life—one day I’m playing a show, the next I’m calling Coon Creek Seeds in Coon Valley, Wisconsin to see if I’m going to put nitrogen on my corn. (laughs) That’s why I’m having fun. I’m participating in this stuff that I’m singing about. The album is called Tall Grass & Cool Water, and it’s about the landscape that I’ve lived on. I feel I’ve been privileged to live on it for a lifetime, the great American prairie and the Rocky Mountains. So I wanted to make an album that was evocative of the culture of that area without getting too far away from the landscape itself does to determine what that culture is. You know, the “Santa Fe Trail” song and “Springtime In the Rockies,” those are there for a reason, because the land shapes who you are and what you have to do to survive in these areas. It shapes a lot about who you are. It’s a very American thing; the American West is really the story of our nation.
Michael Martin Murphey, ‘Cowboy Logic,’ the hit single off the artist’s first Cowboy Songs album, 1989
You and I grew up in the same part of the country, and when we were kids that cowboy culture was part of our everyday lives, whether we were watching the old cowboy movies on TV or hearing the songs—I have no memory of a time when I did not hear Bob Nolan songs. What was it about the cowboy songs that spoke to you so deeply that eventually, ultimately, you would make a career out of singing them?
You know, it’s the same reason when I go back home, or I walk in anywhere, to a little Baptist church in Nebraska and somebody sings “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” and “Amazing Grace.” It wasn’t that I got an interest in it; it’s just there. It’s in my DNA; it’s genetic, or almost genetic. It was my context of life. I can’t imagine a world as a child that didn’t have, as you said, Bob Nolan songs in it—somebody singing “Cool Water” or “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” Or the other songs--somebody singing “Happy Trails,” or “Back In the Saddle Again,” or “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” “San Antonio Rose” and any number of a long list of gospel songs. When I was a kid I didn’t even know who wrote those songs. Songs like “Cool Water” gained traction before I was born, all the way back to the 1920s and 1930s. But they were still around because the nation just fell in love with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and anything that had to do with cowboys in the American West. Ironically, most of those stars were from the Midwest. So it became a national fascination but it was the culture I grew up in. I’d feel very proud as a kid, when we would leave and go on vacation someplace else, to be from the southwest. People would say, “You’re really from Texas? What’s it like down there? You guys are wearing cowboy hats. There must be Indians attacking the stagecoach down there.” I have to tell the truth—we kind of didn’t tell them that that wasn’t happening anymore! (laughs) Little did they know that my dad was an accountant in downtown Dallas working for a mortgage banker. But I will say this, my parents, although they were city people, they sent us out to the family ranches in the country as often and as much as possible. My dad made a concerted effort to do that. He could have been playing baseball with his boys when he came home from work every day in the summer; instead he sent us to my granddad’s ranch, and we spent the whole summer there riding horses and stuff like that. We realized that was what dad wanted to be doing; he just couldn’t because of the job he had. That in a way was a big sacrifice, but that was also the determining factor. So it wasn’t so much about it becoming an interest—it was just there. And I loved it.
Other kids, when Elvis came around, and rock ‘n’ roll got started, began to drift away from that culture. The reason I didn’t was because I had lived it. Unlike a lot of Texans, who are urban Texans, I had actually lived on a ranch, helped work cattle, helped milk the cows, rode on the tractor, and my grandfathers and my uncles who did that for a living were my heroes. I looked up to them and the songs they sang were “Red River Valley,” “Cool Water.” So I got to live the life, and unlike a lot of kids I never left the songs of my culture and the roots of my culture; sure, I liked “Hound Dog” and all that stuff, but I never was really a rock ‘n’ roller. I really loved the music of the guys that raised me. I’ve tried a lot of genres and messed with a lot of things and that’s primarily so I could get girls interested in me by playing the latest hits on the chart—they wouldn’t talk to me unless I played them a hit on the guitar. And then I’d say, “Well, honey, I’m glad we got a date. Now listen to this cowboy song that my granddad sang.”
And she took the first stage out the next day, right?
Right! No, once they heard that stuff they never went back. (laughs)
I know you take great care in selecting songs for your albums. Were the songs on this new album chosen with any more consideration of the factors that you’ve outlined about the connection to the land than any of the others you’ve done on your western albums?
Yes. The title is Tall Grass & Cool Water, and I wanted to pick songs that really spoke about the prairie and the mountains, and expressed emotions about relationships—love, family—through the landscape. You get a song like “Blue Prairie.” “Blue Prairie” is a very complicated, sophisticated song in terms of chord changes and arrangement and key changes. When you hand that song to a bunch of bluegrass or country musicians in Nashville, you get, “Hold on. Nashville chord charts don’t work for this. We have to write down E9, and you have to tell us what notes are in that chord.” I cheated a little bit by picking musicians I knew could do that, like Pat Flynn. Some of those guys, you can hand them any jazz song and they know what the chords are. They might not be as deeply rooted in it as I am from my culture, but they can extrapolate from there what’s happening. So I picked “Blue Prairie” and I picked “Cool Water” because these are masterpieces expressing something about life and philosophy through the landscape. “Far in the distant hills I hear a cry/then a silent hush and no reply”—that’s like the existential cry of life. What’s it all mean? And you don’t get an answer. You have to go inside yourself to find the answer. I think that’s incredible. That’s great writing.
It speaks to the spirituality of those songs. They’re not gospel songs, but they understand the spiritual connection between people and the earth, a very Native American concept.
Bob Nolan was a deep thinker. You’re right—it’s not about religion, it’s about the human condition. The lone cowboy out there trying to make it and trying to make sense of it all is a very good icon for life itself. In the end, when you go across, nobody’s going to hold your hand. You’re alone again. We find ourselves, even in a modern society where you’re around millions of people—I don’t think I have to say this—social scientists will tell you that the more population we get and the more people you live around, the more isolated people become. Therefore, a cowboy song--“Cool Water”--that talks about a guy lost in a desert trying to find water and coming across an illusion, a mirage, of water, instead of real water, is a very good statement about the human condition in modern times. We’re wandering around in a cultural desert trying to find water, and we get a lot of mirages. (laughs) What’s really interesting about that song, too, is that the guy is going crazy; he is literally not sane. He’s going, “Dan, can’t you see that big green tree/and the water over there that’s running free for you and me?/Wait a minute, keep a-moving, Dan, don’t you listen to him, Dan, he’s a devil, not a man, and he spreads the burning sand with water/Dan can you see that big green tree/where the water’s running free/and it’s waitin’ there for me/and you…cool, clear water.”
Bob Nolan, poet laureate of the western song, sings ‘Cool Water’ on his 1979 album, Sound of a Pioneer. Nolan died of a heart attack on June 15, 1980.
Bob Nolan is one of the great American songwriters of the 20th Century. I’d be interested in hearing your perspective as a songwriter addressing the question of what makes his songs so unique, unforgettable and important.
Number one, he was a master of the jazz chord changes of his day and could get way beyond the simple three-chord cowboy song. And he used that to evoke the landscape and the lonesome, vast, wide-open nature of the landscape. Benny Goodman wasn’t about that. The Cotton Club wasn’t about that. But Nolan took the Cotton Club chords and he realized that you could put it together in such a way that you could evoke a whole other world with those same chords. That was his genius, to take American jazz and turn it into a western landscape. Even in the sound of it. You get the pace of a horse riding along, loping along, in the song, and then you start adding chords to it that are very strange and unusual, oddball, and it’s kind of like being in Monument Valley. You’re hearing a musical landscape that’s very unusual. His compositions, musically, were his main genius.
But then you add that the guy obviously studied classical rhyming patterns in-depth. His songs have some of the most interesting rhyming patterns, internally and at the end of the lines, that you will ever find. I think every word is intentionally picked to go with the music. Then you have this thing where he starts in the middle of the meaning of the whole plot; he drops you in the middle, and that’s a classical Greek thing, when they drop you into the middle of a battle and then they go back and tell you why that battle is happening, then they take you forward to what might happen or what’s happening now. “All day I face the barren waste/without a taste of water…” I defy anyone not to perk up their ears a little bit. A song I put on the album is a total imitation of his style of writing, “Partner To the Wind.” It starts off, “It was a long, long way past midnight/when I got up and got out of bed/she never heard me tell her good-bye/she never did hear too much that I said.” I’m doing exactly what Bob Nolan would have done; I’m trying to perk your ears up with the first line. That’s a classical form of writing. If your read Sol Stein’s book on creative writing—Stein on Writing, my favorite book on creative writing—he gets right to the heart of the matter. He says, “The first thing you say is critical.” If don’t have ‘em by line one, you don’t have ‘em. I don’t know if Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry would ever have made it if he hadn’t already had a phenomenal reputation, because the first hundred pages of Lonesome Dove are incredibly dull to read; they’re not interesting. And yet it’s a great novel. But I don’t think McMurtry could have gotten away with writing that novel and having it be a giant hit if it had been his first novel. So I consider Nolan to be a classical writer in the way he writes songs—he’s got you by the first line in most everything that he wrote.
The Sons of the Pioneers perform Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds.’ Bob Nolan is the man in black in the group.
“Tumbling Tumbleweeds” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. The tumbling tumbleweed is a symbol of being alone but being happy. It was Jim Bob Tinsley, an authority on Nolan’s music, who pointed this out to me when I made Cowboy Songs Vol. 1. I cut “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” So I’m singing, “I’m a lonesome cowboy, riding all day long/Nights underneath the prairie moon, I ride along and sing a tune,” and Tinsley said, “No, those aren’t the right words. It’s really important that you don’t use ‘ride along and sing a tune.’ I said, ‘Really? I’ve sung it that way all my life.’ He said, ‘No, ‘I ride alone and sing a tune.’ He said, ‘That’s really a significant part of that song, because the cowboy is able to be self-contained and happy, alone.’ I’d never really thought about that, and I’m glad on my first project of cowboy songs I had somebody there who could nail that point with me. Then I began to see what Nolan was getting at in a lot of his songs, and also the essence of western music, which is the independent, self-contained guy who is the master of his own destiny, or blows it really badly because he gets bucked off. But then he gets back on again. I think that’s why people continue to love cowboy music.
The least known of the Nolan songs you include on this album is “Blue Prairie.” It seems to have a purpose in being where it is in the song sequence, following the James Gang Trilogy. Two of the songs in the trilogy are old, familiar tunes, but the third, “Frank James Farewell,” is a more recent number by Hal Ketchum and Gary Burr depicting a weary, melancholy old outlaw reflecting back on his exploits with regret. You follow the trilogy with “Blue Prairie,” and in that song the singer could not be more alone on the land and in his soul. Surely there was a purpose in placing it after the trilogy.
The last song of the trilogy is “Frank James Farewell.” Frank is now totally separated from all the old gang members and his brother is dead, and he’s reminiscing about life with them, but he knows he’s alone and going forward he’s going to be by himself. Emotionally, “Blue Prairie” follows that song for that reason. You know, you’ve got to accept the blues, the blue landscape in your soul, and figure out how to deal with it, and that’s what “Frank James Farewell” is about. “I believe I’ve seen my last sunset, I believe I have jumped my last train.” I can see him sitting out on the prairie somewhere in Missouri saying that; probably back at the old James farm. A year after his brother was assassinated, he turned himself in to the Governor of Missouri, said he was a tired old outlaw and was tired of running. He spent most of the rest of his life in Missouri and Oklahoma and on the prairie. So, it was a blue prairie for him from then on. As the song says, he outlived Jesse by thirty years.
Sons of the Pioneers, ‘Blue Prairie,’ 1936 recording featuring Bob Nolan on lead vocal, with Tim Spencer and Leonard Slye (aka Roy Rogers) on vocals, Hugh Farr on fiddle, Karl Farr on guitar, with Slye also playing guitar.
Why include the James Gang Trilogy on the album anyway?
The essential outlaws of our society are the James Gang; they come from the Great American Prairie, not the far west. I read a book called The Great American Outlaw [Ed. note: The Great American Outlaw: A Legacy of Fact and Fiction by Frank Richard Prassel, published 1996 by the University of Oklahoma Press and available from www.amazon.com] that is the best study of the mentality of outlaws and what outlaw means in our culture. He basically advanced the idea that we think of ourselves as outlaws and rebels, and everything that defines what we do in our culture is based on rebelling against something. It’s always one mighty individualist up against the forces of bureaucracy. I think the guy really had something there. Criminals in our society often become heroes.
So I put the James Gang on there because to me they are the center of the rebellious, lonesome soul of the heartland, the tall grass prairie and the mountains. You have to deal with them as icons if you’re ever going to talk about anything in American culture. There’s no way out. Before it went out of business, American Demographic magazine did a worldwide survey of the most famous names in history. Jesse James was in the top five, right up there with Buddha and Jesus; he even beat out Elvis. Elvis was in the top ten but Jesse was way up there.
Sons of the Pioneers, ’Home on the Range,’ with Ken Curtis on lead vocal. As an actor Curtis became a regular member of John Ford’s troupe (he’s featured in The Searchers, among other Ford classics), but achieved his greatest acclaim playing Festus Hagen on Gunsmoke.
You don’t include “Home On the Range” on this album, but it’s certainly on your radar at the moment. You’ve lent your support to a drive to help save the cabin in northern Kansas where in 1872 Brewster Higley wrote “Home On the Range.” Why did you want to get involved in this effort? What’s your historical perspective on “Home On the Range”?
Well, you know, there’s a shrine to the place where “American the Beautiful” was written. There are little shrines all over the country to places where certain songs were written or where people composed pieces of music. It’s probably the first really popular western song in history. How could I not get involved in trying to save the sacred place where the guy wrote the song? It’s still there, right there in the landscape he was singing about. You go there and it is a magical place. It’s the soul of the prairie there, up by Athol, Kansas. Plus they have the greatest weather station I’ve ever seen there. It’s a rock that hangs from a piece of wood, a white rock hanging off a piece of chain, and a sign that says, “Athol Weather Station. Wet rock—rain. Dry rock—drought. Can’t see the rock—fog.” C’mon, that’s the great thing about where we come from—that kind of thing just cuts through the bullshit. I love the place, I went up there to see it, and just felt like the cabin ought to be preserved. It’s just a one-room cabin, nothing special, but the landscape around it is something special. There are rivers that meet together there, it’s rolling hills and is still a heavily agricultural rural area, and this family is trying to preserve it without turning it over to the National Park Service. Keep it like a park that people can visit without getting involved in the bureaucracy. They’ve never taken any grant money from the state; they’re trying to raise all the money independently. You know I would have to admire that. I love it when people do things real independently that way. Not that I’m against people getting grants. Generally speaking, the state grants and the local grants are the ones that work the best. You start working with the Ford Foundation you’re often disconnected from the people who run it and you don’t know if they’re going to give you money next year. But the local things work out a whole lot better. So I’m encouraging them to get some local Kansas kind of grants. I didn’t record “Home On the Range” for this album; I’d done it before. I did on Cowboy Songs Vol. I as a duet with Tammy Wynette, and you just can’t beat doing “Home On the Range” with Tammy Wynette.
The log cabin near Athol, Kansas, where Brewster Higley wrote the words to ‘Home On the Range,’ the Kansas state song (Photo: Beccy Tanner/Wichita Eagle)
Speaking of duet partners, you’ve got a great one on this album, but not a lot of people know about her—Carin Mari. She’s fantastic whenever she shows up, and her harmonizing on “Springtime In the Rockies” is beautiful.
To me she’s the young Gillian Welch. She’s the next really true country soul singer. She doesn’t sing it real pretty, but she doesn’t sing it ugly either. She has an honest kind of voice. I’ve worked with her since she was nine years old; she came out to a ranch where I was doing a show and sang “American the Beautiful” and then sang “God Bless America.” Even then I heard something different in her voice. So I’ve been kind of a mentor to her for a long time, trying to help her and her family through the music business nonsense. I knew eventually I was going use her on an album, but I had to find the right one, and she had to get to a point of maturity where it really worked. Before that she was a bit like a child prodigy, and child prodigies often don’t come to a very good end in our world. So she’s now about 20 years old, been through a couple of years of music school, finished second in the Colgate Country Music Countdown contest—I’m glad she didn’t finish first, because she didn’t quit school. I told her, “The biggest prize you could get is to go all the way to the finals with your own music, singing solo with an acoustic guitar in a cowgirl outfit, because that’s where you come from. That’s way better than changing your hair to the latest Taylor Swift look and winning number one.” All the other girls that were in the contest we do respect, because a lot of them were great singers and really pretty, but all of them were pretty much imitators of the current contemporary country music sound. And Carin went all the way to Nashville singing her own songs. She only sang her own material and she dressed in jeans and a cowgirl hat, which is not in fashion in Nashville, and went all the way to the finals in that and got good reaction from the judges. So that tells me more about what the trend is than even about her life.
Michael Martin Murphey and Carin Mari, ‘Happy Trails,’ at the Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Heber City, UT, November 5, 2009, with the Utah Valley University Symphony
When we spoke last year you were in the middle of a controversy erupting in Wisconsin, where you have a ranch, about the state using eminent domain to seize 10 acres of farmland otherwise owned by Mark Lepke. You and other ranchers had formed the Farmers’ Freedom Agriculture Alliance and did a benefit to protest unfair land acquisitions not only in Wisconsin, but all across the western, midwestern and southwestern states. What’s the status of the Lepke situation and what’s happening elsewhere?
Well, you’ve read the national news. Wisconsin has just had a phenomenal flip-flop in its general way of running things. Wisconsin has always been heavily socialist in thinking. We all know the downside of socialism is that you have a committee and a bureaucracy overseeing your life, and that’s what was killing Mark Lepke and those farmers along there, the state of Wisconsin giving them the back of their hand saying, “We’re taking these farms by eminent domain. We don’t care if your family’s been there a hundred years. We don’t care if your great grandfather built that farm. We want that for a road to go from A to B.” Turns out it was kind of like the Bridge to Nowhere. It wasn’t necessary; it was just a bunch of contractors who were close to the Wisconsin statehouse who wanted to make a lot of money and had their eyes on that road. There’s a lot of money in building roads through the Cooley region of Wisconsin because it’s like West Virginia. They were just going to destroy these heritage farms.
I got involved in it and Mark Lepke did beat ‘em. I call them the Highway 61 Ten. There were ten farmers along there, and all of them have had at least some degree of victory over the bureaucracy there. But it was obviously part of a whole movement that was happening in Wisconsin, with people saying, “We don’t like the Democrats and we don’t like the Republicans. We don’t like anybody. We’re just going to rise up.” The farmers made it national news. They were tired of Wisconsin taxing them to death, they were tired of Wisconsin taking their land for public works, tired of the whole eminent domain thing. We did a couple of events and people showed up from all over the state. People were asking, “Is this Tea Party or what?” “No, it’s just about the fact that if you own a farm and you’ve contributed to the economy for several generations, and somebody comes through and says, ‘We’re going to build a road here; you’re going to have to get rid of your farm,’ they better have a really good justification for that.” I don’t know if that’s Democrat or Republican; it just doesn’t make sense. I wouldn’t even do that to a corporate farmer.
You’re a family farmer. Obama’s secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has a history of supporting big agribusiness and being hostile to family farms. What’s happening to the family farmer in this country?
Well, keep in mind that some family farms are corporations and are a big business, but they’re still owned by a family. We bring that out a lot in the television show on PBS, America’s Heartland, which, by the way, is now the number one rated show on PBS. We bring that out on a weekly basis on America’s Heartland, that family farmers are sometimes really good business people and they have big farms and big ranches and they’re successful on a wide basis. Having said that, I can tell you that politics—doesn’t matter whether it’s Democrats or Republicans—have been involved with big agribusiness for a long, long time, probably since Roosevelt, when it became clear that Roosevelt was going to have to get involved in determining farm policy to avert a disaster. He did it and he did well, but that wasn’t the answer long term; that was a short-term answer that was incorporated in the national policy.
What’s happening now with the family farmer, through people like Mark Lepke who have guts, and some others who are willing to stand up, we’re starting to gain some traction. Urban people are starting to pay attention to us. It all comes down to somewhere somebody going out and running that milking parlor, whether it’s milking ten thousand cows a day or milking sixty. It comes down to some family running it. I think we’re starting to gain some traction. We’re beginning to notice, because of some real martyrs like Kit Laney and Wayne Hage and Mark Lepke—it just about destroyed Mark’s family for him to stand up to the state of Wisconsin like that. Ultimately he did get just compensation. He did have to move but he at least got enough compensation to be able to buy another place. He didn’t want to move. The real big deal with me was they weren’t even willing to give him the value of his land.
We have a little-known part of our government called Takings Court. It goes all the way to Washington. Wayne Hage stayed in Takings Court for twenty-plus years. But there is a whole separate part of the judiciary that deals with eminent domain takings by the Federal government. There are Takings Courts in every state also. Whenever the government takes something the Constitution says you have to get just compensation for that taking. It does say in the fifth amendment to the Constitution that the government can take property for purposes of roads, bridges—it’s a tightly proscribed group of things the government can do but it is a specific plank in the original Constitution. So they had to create something in the judiciary that would deal with how much the property being taken is worth.
With Mark Lepke, we came in and said, “Go down to the local committee that deals with zoning and apply for a shopping center to be built on your land.” He said he didn’t want to build a shopping center. We said, “That’s not the point. They do. They want to build a shopping center on your land. You can bet on it. That’s why they’re building a road through here; that’s why they’re in bed with the state government; that’s where the contractors are making a lot of money. What you do is go in and file for that. Now when they take it, okay, they have to give you just compensation, highest and best use.” That applies to local, regional, state and federal—no public entity in this country can take your land without eventually—if there’s an argument—going all the way to the Federal Takings Court. So that was the real fight, and it was something I learned from the Kit Laney and Wayne Hage fight, that you have to go in and say, “No—you have to pay me for highest and best use. You may have the right to take this under the Constitution for a public work but you have to give me highest and best use compensation.” So Wayne Hage eventually collected, I think it’s up to 25 million, but he died from stress before he ever collected the money. The government kept him in court for 20 years. He couldn’t live on his land; he couldn’t operate his ranch until it was settled. The family is still in court with the government over what it’s worth. The water rights to that ranch were the real thing they wanted. They’re in Tonopah, in northern Nevada. Where does it end up? A place called Las Vegas, Nevada! And what city is running out of water faster than any other metropolitan area in the world? Las Vegas! That’s why they wanted to take Wayne Hage’s place, but he proved he had a prior water right that went back to the 1800s. Nothing could be more contemporary than that issue is right now, because we have vast, vast drought going on. A few months ago in Wetmore, Colorado, a guy shot another guy for taking water he wasn’t supposed to be taking from an irrigation ditch. Those battles are going to continue. So you think when the government takes that water it’s not going to cause a public uprising?
Now, I’ve tried to write songs about that and I’ve tried to get involved, and I’ve had agents and managers telling me for a lifetime, “Don’t get in the middle of politics, it’ll only hurt your record sales and your career. Why turn off the people in your audience who thought they liked your music but don’t agree with you?” That strikes me as intellectual cowardice. Why do I indulge in all this creative activity in my life if it comes to nothing? I’m not a protest writer. Write about cool water; write about blue prairie; write about partner to the wind and how beautiful it all is. Cast it in emotional terms.
Michael Martin Murphey, ‘Wildfire,’ at the Texas Music Legends concert series at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas in August, 2007.
I saw you’ve brought some property in Beulah, Colorado and a newspaper article said you were putting some cattle on the land. Are you fully dug in there now in addition to having the ranch in Wisconsin?
We’re taking a conservation easement on the land in Colorado and in order to do that you have to own the land for a year. So we haven’t built anything on the land yet because we’re waiting for the conservation easement to come through. Conservation easement means that the State of Colorado Lower Arkansas Water Conservation District gives you money to not develop your land, to make it impossible for a Mark Lepke story ever to happen. An appraiser comes in and says, “Here’s what your land would be worth if developed.” So they give you tax credits of that amount of money, and you then pay off your land, or a good chunk of it, with the money you get from that conservation easement. But you have to develop your footprint and the whole wildlife management aspect of it before you can do that. So that’s taking some time; we haven’t built anything out there yet, but we’re renting another ranch over in Red Creek, 20 miles away from there. I’m spending a good deal of my time in Colorado now, but we’re going back to Wisconsin in a few weeks. I can’t give up on my wife’s part of the heartland. We’re partners and we’re a team, and she still loves it back there—and we do have a great barn there (laughs). That’s what the album’s about—we’re still on the tall grass prairie and we’re still in the Rocky Mountains too. Still looking for tall grass and cool water, wherever that may be.
A Personal Reflection
By Michael Martin Murphey
"I don't consider that there is any place in the world that offers the subjects that the West offers. Everything in the West is life, and you want life in art...the field to me is inexhaustible."--Frederic Remington, 1900
I was standing on a stage, singing cowboy music at a benefit to raise money for the legal defense of Kit Laney, a rancher near the Gila Wilderness who was jailed for balking at the idea that all he had worked for, all he had built, could be taken away by the U.S. Forest Service with no scientific justification.
I found it ironic that only a few years ago, I had been hired by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to perform for the 50th Anniversary of the Gila Wilderness. I've always liked the Gila area, and I've always been intrigued by Aldo Leopold, who advocated protecting it. According to his daughter, Nina Leopold, Leopold loved cowboy music, ranchers, hunting, fishing and the people of the Southwest-though he spent the majority of his career in Wisconsin. While Leopold certainly was a conservationist, he was not anti-hunting, anti-agriculture, or anti-rancher. His idea was to involve private property owners in good conservation practice-not confiscate land. He hated over-grazing, as do the vast majority of ranchers-it's their resource. As Kit Laney told me, "I have absolutely no problem with the idea of the Gila Wilderness, and meetings with the Leopold Society went well." Laney impressed me as a good man, who was being bullied for no good reason.
From left: Kit Laney, Sherry Farr, Michael Martin Murphey, and Cowboy Poet Doc Mayer
The performance space in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, was packed to the rafters, and Laney was sitting on the front row. I started out singing old cowboy songs, then moved on to some contemporary songs written by cowboys and ranchers-a few of the songs were my own. As I sang, I looked into the faces of those present. What was going on in my mind at that moment? Why would a large group of people, not all of them in cowboy hats and boots, turn out in big numbers, to hear old cowboy songs and new ones, and pay for the experience-all in the name of a rancher who defied a court order to reduce his cattle numbers, and then refused to leave his ranch home? Were they all just a bunch of sagebrush rebel ranchers, on a tear about the government?
Well, as it turned out, most of the audience present that evening were not ranchers and cowboys. But they were something bigger than that. They were members of a distinct culture-a culture that goes beyond the boundaries of the United States of America; a culture of the community of people who are involved in the life and business of grazing-or are touched by it, or find inspiration from it. But that led to another question. Why does the lifestyle of people who raise grazing animals inspire such a desire for artful expression? Stay with me.
The 20th Anniversary of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada featured Mongolian Cowboy Poets and Musicians. That's right--Mongolians! This was the culmination of the ongoing mission of the Gathering to track down and showcase the poetry and music of grangers from around the world. I was not only transfixed by the music and stories about the Mongolian ranges (which I understood--thanks to a translator who was on stage with them), I was even more enchanted by the Mongolian cowboys' personalities. I wanted to get to know them, and I got the chance.
Frederic Remington, ‘Stampede,’ 1908, oil on canvas. Said the artist: ‘Everything in the West is life, and you want life in art’
I was invited to a post-Gathering party at the home of a local Nevada rancher, where it was said that the Mongolians would be present. I jumped at the chance, and the chance played out. As I spoke to them through a translator, these Mongolians spoke of the same kind of problems with bureaucrats that we have in America. As cowboys and ranchers, they exhibited qualities and ideals that are universal to the culture of cowboys-they wanted to be free, and left alone. They didn't want people who live far away to determine their way of life, and they had plenty of songs about the beauty of the free life they revere.
The conversation with the Mongolians lingered in my mind, and still haunts me today. Together with the music and poetry of other cowboy cultures-American Buckaroos and Cattlemen, the Australians, New Zealanders, Hawaiians, the U.K. beef raisers, the Canadians, the Mexicans, Central Americans, South Americans (who can deny the nobility of the Gauchos?), African herdsmen, and so many more, there is a considerable body of work that can only be described as derivative of culture. And the themes are remarkably unified: independent spirit, precision and dedication in work, fiercely defensive of place and property, and dismay at the interfering greenhorn who knows little about the rules of the range.
To return to the North American range, the amount of cultural material relating to the cowboy is overwhelming and staggering. The cowboy and his experiences have been reflected in an overwhelming body of work that confounds those who think culture is related to the more refined endeavors of those who write about refinement in a refined way. Does this sound redundant? Of course it does, and that's the problem. It's all about the ever-tightening inner-circle of those who think their degrees qualify them in the ranks of the Art-and-Culture Police. Most people in academic settings, who define what culture should be, are convinced that no artful good thing can come from the people who work the land--thus, the ever-present "aggie jokes" and "redneck" references regarding anyone who comes from the much-despised back country of anywhere.
‘Here’s to the sunny slopes of long ago’: A scene from Lonesome Dove with Augustus McRae and Woodrow F. Call
Allow me a telling example. The study of artists and sculptors, Art History and Criticism, had been a legitimate genre of study in major universities for a long time. Yet it has only been in the last decade that Oklahoma State University initiated the first Art History degree with a special certification in Western Art. Why? Western art has been looked down upon as the unwanted stepchild of the more urbane aficionados of the "Arts" who have long thought that Western art was the quaint commercial art of the unenlightened lower classes from the country regions. You see, it is assumed that those who grow food and work with grazing animals must be uneducated, uncouth, and fraught with the accompanying ignorant political positions that come with too many days too close to the dirt.
Western art has it genesis in the American fascination with cowboys and Indians. It started long before film and pulp fiction, and shows no signs of diminishing. From the vibrant early impressions of Carl Bodmer to the realism-gone-abstract imagistic starkness of Georgia O'Keefe, Western art is loved, and thriving-all over the world. The cowboy artists of old are now recognized by museums and millions of visitors, as masters--Charlie Russell, Buck Dunton, Fredrick Remington, Maynard Dixon, W.R. Leigh, Joe Beeler, Gordon Snidow--the list is long, and growing. At last, a university has decided to acknowledge the importance of its study, by offering a degree program for it.
The first western film, The Great Train Robberty (1903). Filmed in November 1903 at Edison's New York studio, at Essex County Park in New Jersey, and along the Lackawanna railroad and released in December 1903, it was greatly influenced by the British film Daring Daylight Robbery (also 1903) and introduced American audiences to several new cinematic techniques, such as cross cutting, double exposure, camera movement and location shooting. It was directed by Edwin S Porter and stars Justus D. Barnes as the head bandit, G. M. Anderson as a slain passenger and a robber, Walter Cameron as the sheriff.
The American Western Film has recently passed its 100th birthday. The Great Train Robbery (1903), the first commercial feature film, was a huge hit in its day, and public fascination for the Western film hasn't stopped. It slows down at times, but it doesn't stop. Between 1926 and 1967, more than 3,600 Western feature films were made in America by major and independent studios. When television came in, hit westerns became a staple, with more than 600 Western series running from 1949 to the present. Today, films like Crossfire Trail and Monty Walsh are capturing huge audiences on television, and features like Open Range are succeeding, in spite of predictions to the contrary. Western television series, whether the mini-series type, like Lonesome Dove, or extended series like Doctor Quinn, Young Riders, and Deadwood have achieved startling numbers in the ratings, while Western features like Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, Tombstone, The Horse Whisperer and Open Range have also produced considerable box-office success.
Western literature has always been a hit with readers around the world, and it still is. From the days of dime-novel pulp fiction, to Owen Wister's The Virginian, Louis L'Amour, to McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, and Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, the Western setting and the cowboy theme has always proved popular, and is getting increasingly legitimate recognition as a fertile ground for creative writing.
John Wayne as singing cowboy Singin’ Sandy Saunders, the screen’s first singing cowboy, in Riders of Destiny (1933), the first of his 16 Westerns for the Monogram company. Co-starring Cecilia Parker, Yakima Canutt and George ‘Gabby’ Hayes,’ with Earl Dwire as bad guy Slip Morgan, the movie was produced, directed and written by Robert N. Bradbury. Length: 50 minutes.
Western non-fiction is a rich motherlode of insight into the very concept of a frontier. Though a comprehensive bibliography of essential Western non-fiction has not been compiled, it's a subject that attracted great historians, presidents, adventurers, down-to-earth workers in the soil, and everyday frontier people. Teddy Roosevelt was inspired to tackle the subject in the 1880s, and he waxed eloquent. Yet, Western history is certainly not widely available to American History students, even in the universities of Western states.
The overwhelming success of cowboy poetry has inspired many men and women of the range, across the nation, to write poetry about this lifestyle. Yet most academics dismiss it as insignificant, as beneath the serious attention of more sophisticated types who write, study and read "serious" poetry. Yet it's been around since the last half of the 19th century, and it's astounding how much of it is published and bought in the open marketplace of bookstores and specialty shops. From early masters like D.J. O'Malley, Badger Clark, Bruce Kiskaddon, Gail Gardner, Henry Herbert Knibbs, S. Omar Barket and Curley Fletcher-to latter-day craftsmen like Baxter Black, Waddie Mitchell, Wallace McRae, and Doc Mayer, the size of the movement, and the swiftness of its rise to popularity is astounding. Yet you don't hear about it much in the media. How can such a powerful movement be ignored so often?
Cowboy music is experiencing a widespread revival, closely related to the ascendancy of cowboy poetry. There are now hundreds of successful cowboy singers roaming the country. They're below the hip culture radar. Again, it's been around since the early post-Civil War era, and has always enjoyed popular success. From Jules Verne Allen, Jack Thorp, John I. White and Carl T. Sprague, to Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the Sons of the Pioneers, to Marty Robbins, to Don Edwards, and Red Steagall, the music of the cowboy is growing so fast it can't be denied. Yet when was the last time you saw anything about it in the media? "Country music" isn't interested. Nashville-based music executives pressure people to write almost anything besides a cowboy song or a song of the range.
Teddy Roosevelt was one of the first in the ranch country of North Dakota to reach wide audiences with entertaining and fascinating prose about ranch life in the West. In the 1880s, he wrote, "The moral tone of the cowcamp is rather high than otherwise." He goes on to describe the remarkable sense of decorum among them. Since Roosevelt was an outsider, no one liked him right away, but he eventually became the President by convincing them that he was one of them at heart. He praised the cowboy over and over again.
I am saying all of these things with an end in mind. The elitists of the world cannot ignore the cultural importance of all of the activity in the cowboy and Western cultures. The "culture vultures" are just that; they feed on the dead, not the living. They will try, because if they can, crush it, they may have some success. But the end, it will flourish.
Gunsmoke, starring James Arness, Milburn Stone, Amanda Blake and Dennis Weaver, in the half-hour episode ‘Odd Man Out,’ season 5, episode 167, aired November 21, 1959
Cowboy culture and expression must be kept down by its detractors, precisely because they know they cannot pursue their own goals if millions are listening to cowboy poetry and music, buying Western arts and crafts, and watching Westerns at home or in theaters. But they will fail to keep it down. It's like a herd of runaways! They started the chaos that led to the stampede, hoping to be rustlers of a loyal audience-but don't worry! Cowboys will not only rescue that herd, they just might continue to win the hearts of millions.
No other group within a profession has inspired so many and so much. But today, there is a concerted effort to trivialize the music of the cowboy, because people have been force-fed the idea that cattle are not good for the land, and horses are a trivial pursuit. Science tells us otherwise. The cowboy of today has been called a "romantic," "believer in myths," and dismissed as a person of little value. Yet it is that tenacious romanticism about the lifestyle that keeps the range in good shape, because those who love the life simply won't give up.
A cynic who decides to do a little research in this area ought to start by visiting The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Center, in Oklahoma--then head on over to the Philbrook in Tulsa, the Amon Carter in Fort Worth, the Sid Richardson Gallery of Fort Worth, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center of Cody, Wyoming, to name a few. There is no doubt in my mind that a cynical person, however negative, will walk out a changed person.
Randolph Scott in Buffalo Stampede (aka The Thundering Herd), 1933, directed by Henry Hathaway and co-starring Judith Allen, Buster Crabbe, Noah Beery. Length: 57 minutes.
Respect and open-mindedness for the "Culture of Agriculture" is one of the most important things for those who run our government to consider. Until those in our nation acquire it, Americans are creating a tinderbox that could torch the whole resource--and alas, so few will be remembered. But it could also backfire, and the wind could blow the fires in a different direction. The stampede might turn, too. There are still brave people out there, who are, as Fredrick Remington said, "full of life." Their code won't allow them to stand by and watch anyone get hurt.
The time has come. Cowboy Culture is worthy of respect from the highest institutions of art and culture. The world cannot long ignore the depth of the culture of agriculture. If the influence of agriculture on culture were not there, virtually every art and science would be unimaginably bare.
The cultural revolution of our day will come from people of the land. The world is beginning to wake up to the fact that those who are working in the fields and taking care of the land have a great deal to say, and much of it has profound depth. Simple truth and plain expression is always the most profound--and now, the world is beginning to listen.
Michael Martin Murphey in concert at the Freedom 21 Conference in Reno
Michael Martin Murphey's website is www.michaelmartinmurphey.com. This article appeared in the November 1, 2004 eco-logic online and is now published online at the Virginia Land Rights Coaltion website.
‘Happy Trails,’ Roy Rogers and Dale Evans