Michael Martin Murphey

Michael Martin Murphey, “singing cowboy poet”, is not only the number one, best-selling singer/ songwriter of American Cowboy Music, he’s one of the world’s most respected singer/ songwriters in the Pop and Country-Western field. Though he’s remained a lifetime resident and loyal son of Texas, he’s a man on mystical, spiritual quest to try capture the soul of the deserts, plains and mountains in the soul of America- from the Carolinas to California, from the Great Plains to the Deep South to the Wild North Country.

Murphey is the world’s most prominent musical representative of the Western horseman (Richard Farnsworth, legendary Hollywood stunt man and Western actor once called him a “master horseman”), the horse rancher, cattle rancher, and cowboy. He’s also a lover of the outdoors, with a strong commitment to issues regarding farmers and ranchers, open space, and management of natural resources.

Although Murphey did have some love song-related hits, most of them were penned by other writers such as Rafe VanHoy’s “What’s Forever For?”, Jesse Winchester’s “I’m Gonna Miss You, Girl” and the Overstreet/Schuyler composition “A Long Line Of Love”, most of his own work involves nature and his respect for all things living and the universe at large. And let’s not forget that his biggest hit, “Wildfire”, was about a mysterious dream horse on the vast American heartland prairie. While others sang about the urban street life and hip discos, Murphey was singing about the stark beauty of the “dark, flat land” of Nebraska.

After briefly attending North Texas State College, Murphey moved to California to go to UCLA, where he studied classical literature, medieval and renaissance history and literature, with an emphasis on poetry and creative writing. He remained almost completely self-taught as a musician, and by 1964, he had not only become a folk club favorite in California, he had signed a songwriting contract with Sparrow Music. It was around that time when Murphey and pal Owen “Boomer” Castleman hooked up with other musicians they had known in Texas – John London (bass player for James Taylor’s first album), and Michael Nesmith. They formed a band called the New Survivors. They recorded one album that never saw the light of day, but the association with Michael Nesmith proved to be fortunate when Nesmith became one of the hugely successful Monkees and recorded one of Murphey’s songs, “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Around?”  This led to a lifelong career as a songwriter whose songs are recorded by others, from the Monkees to John Denver to Lyle Lovett.

Next came a short-lived duo with “Boomer” Castleman known as Travis & Boomer (Murphey went by the name Travis Lewis for that period of time), which evolved into the Texas Twosome, backed up by banjo master, John McEuen. By 1967, Murphey, along with Castleman, formed The Lewis & Clarke Expedition. Just like the explorers of the early West whose names they adopted, they were musically blazing new trails by combining country, pop and folk with a western flair. They made one self-titled album on Colgems (coincidentally, the same label as the Monkees) from which comes “I Feel Good (I Feel Bad),” the earliest cut on this collection. In 1972, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition recorded Murphey’s idea for a concept album revolving around a ghost town in the Mojave Desert. Consisting of 19 tracks that he wrote with Larry Cansler(co-writer of the essential Murphey classic, “Wildfire”), the album, entitled The Ballad Of Calico, was critically acclaimed and won Murphey some notice.

In 1970, he moved back to Texas, this time settling in Austin, where he founded a “Texas music scene” that became world famous. Though others like Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker followed in his footsteps, Murphey was the first singer/songwriter of this Austin scene to be signed to major record label while operating out of Austin, Texas. Others couldn’t help but take notice. When Willie Nelson visited one of Murphey’s performances in Austin, he got rid of his suit and tie, grew long hair and a beard like Murphey’s, and played the Armadillo World Headquarters as Murphey’s opening act. In fact, Murphey inspired many more Texas-based musicians to stick to their home state while playing to the world. As Lyle Lovett put it, “Michael Martin Murphey is one the main influences on my career. He is among America’s best songwriters”.

In 1972, A&M released the debut album by Murphey entitled Geronimo’s Cadillac . The first album was produced by Bob Johnston (who discovered Murphey at his old coffee house stomping grounds, the Rubiayat, in Dallas, Texas), who also produced Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Simon and Garfunkel, and Leonard Cohen– which made the critical world pay attention to Murphey as a serious songwriter. Written as a protest song after Murphey saw a photograph taken of the Chief being paraded in a Cadillac convertible, the single not only made it to the Top 40, but was used at the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1974.- sealing his lifelong association with the Lakota Nation in South Dakota. “Geronimo’s Cadillac” was later recorded by such artists as Hoyt Axton, Mary McCaslin, Cher, and Johnny Rivers . Rolling Stone Magazine immediately proclaimed, “On the strength of his first album alone, Michael Murphey is the best new songwriter in the country,” Murphey was also called “brilliant” in a London Times review of the album. Some people called his music Progressive Country, some called it Redneck Rock, and some called it Outlaw Music. The fact is, no one could quite figure out exactly what to call it- they were struggling with trying to label a songwriter who could morph from the blues, to country, to pop ballad, rock and roll, bluegrass, western- swing, cowboy music and jazz.

After moving to Epic Records and releasing the album titled Michael Murphey , he was ready to employ a completely different process in the studio. In May, 1975 Murphey’s story song, “Wildfire,” reached No. 1 on the Radio and Records charts, No.3 on Billboard’s Pop Chart, and No. 1 on all Adult Contemporary Charts, giving the artist vast commercial exposure. Musically, it stood out, due, in part, to the unique harmonies supplied by the Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson, and the beautiful piano intro based on a classical piece by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, played by master jazz musician Jac Murphy. As members of the superstar band Lonestar put it, “Murphey’s ‘Wildfire’ was one of the songs that inspired our sound.” All of the members of Alabama have echoed that statement.

The banjo wasn’t your typical commercial instrument on pop radio in the mid-’70s. But “Carolina In The Pines,” Murphey’s follow-up single, actually contained a banjo solo by McEuen (who also played mandolin on the song), helping to raise the profile of the instrument. That, and the piano solo by Jac Murphy, creates a magical track that you will want to listen to over and over again. The timelessness of the song is evidenced by the fact that it went to No. 21 on the pop charts in 1975 and a re-recorded version with McEuen and Ricky Skaggs went Top 10 on the country charts ten years later.

Colorado crony John Denver sang background on Murphey’s next album, Swans Against The Sun, also recorded at Caribou. He sings background on the title track, as well as on one of Murphey’s greatest compositions, “Renegade.” John McEuen is on electric slide guitar, Charlie Daniels plays electric guitar and adds his vocals to those of Denver, Jeff Hanna, Willie Nelson and Tracy Nelson.

Also in ’82, Murphey’s treatment of Rafe VanHoy’s beautiful ballad “What’s Forever For?” went Pop Top 20, but it marked the beginning of a significant change in radio and for artists such as Murphey.

In the early 1980’s, Murphey recorded a watershed album called Michael Martin Murphey for Capitol Records, produced by fellow-Texan, Jim Ed Norman, architect of the cross-over country sound of the time. Murphey’s self-penned “Still Taking Chances,” released that same year, was, according to Murphey, one of the first love songs he ever wrote. It also went high on the charts, solidifying his relationship with country radio as a singer-songwriter, which exposed him to an entirely new audience. Ironically, 12 years after his first hit in Pop music, Murphey was awarded Best New Artist by the Academy of Country Music in 1983 (beating out George Strait!), and he continued to enjoy hits on country and pop radio throughout the decade. In 1987, his “A Long Line Of Love,” reached No. 1. “I’m Going Miss You, Girl” (written by Jesse Winchester) and “From The Word Go,” from his 1988 album River Of Time, both went to No. 3. His last single on the charts was “Cowboy Logic” in 1989.

In 1985, Michael performed with the New Mexico Symphony in a concept show he titled, “A Night in the American West”. This performance led to hundreds of performances with American and Canadian symphonies (including – The National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C.), and was the harbinger of things to come, when Murphey would go down a lonesome trail of cowboy music, against the trends of his time.

His now-gold Cowboy Songs album, the first gold album of Cowboy Music since Marty Robbins, sparked a whole series of albums. Murphey has received many awards for his accomplishments in the Western and Cowboy Music field, including 5 awards from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

Murphey founded and trademarked a Western cultural festival in Colorado called Westfest in 1987, which has been called the best festival in America by many critics. He has expanded Westfest to other states, and like the Buffalo Bill and his Wild West shows of old, Murphey has become synonymous with American West showmanship, culture, lifestyle, and scholarship. In fact, Murphey was appointed an Adjunct Professor of Music and American Studies at Utah State University by a group of scholars who predicated in creating the Oxford History of the American West. Michael has been chosen as the recipient of the Buffalo Bill Award by the State of Nebraska, given at Nebraskaland Days in North Platte, where Buffalo Bill lived, and began his Wild West shows.

Michael also broke ground with an innovative concert concept called ‘Cowboy Christmas™’ in 1987, which has become a trademarked touring show and musical concept for him. The tour now spans 40 cities per holiday season, and has led to three Cowboy Christmas™ albums and a Cowboy Christmas™ DVD. Again, Murphey was reviving a tradition from Texas. The Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball in Anson, Texas, was a little-known event outside of West Texas, until Murphey discovered and recorded Larry Chittenden’s 1880’s classic song, “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” in 1985. The event is now world-famous, due to Murphey’s tireless praise for this tradition. Murphey now plays the original location of the ball in Anson every year.

Murphey has been a guest of honor and performer at virtually every important Western event and festival of his time: Grand Marshal of Cheyenne Frontier Days, the Reno Rodeo, the San Antonio Livestock Show, and many others. He has performed while singing on horseback at many prestigious Western Events: seven years at The National Western Stock Show of Denver, Colorado; the San Antonio Livestock Show in Texas; The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo; The New Mexico State Fair; and the American Quarter Horse World Show in Oklahoma City. Murphey has appeared at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Calgary Stampede, Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City, The Colorado State Fair and Rodeo, The Utah State Fair and Rodeo, the National Festival of the West, the Festival of the American West, and many others. He serves on the advisory board of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada, and is a much-loved performer there.

Michael has also received awards for his accomplishments in many fields. The award for which he is most honored is the Golden Smoky Award, given to him by the Department of Interior for his tireless work in conservation and wildlands fire awareness. Other awards in include: Gold Albums for Cowboy Songs Vol. One, Blue Sky Night Thunder, and Will The Circle Be Unbroken,  the Charlie Russell Award for Western Heritage, five ‘Wrangler’ awards from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame, the National Day of the Cowboy Keeper Award, the Academy of Country Music, various Rock Music Awards, the Academy of Western Music Award for Best Album and Song, the Governor of New Mexico’s Outstanding Achievement Award, an Honorary Lifetime Membership in the American Quarter Horse Association, an Honorary Paul I. Harris Award from Rotarians International, the Outstanding Citizen Award by the Town of Taos, New Mexico, the Outstanding Son of Texas Award by the Texas Legislature, the BMI Awards for Radio Airplay, and a special citation for Outstanding Contribution to the State of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for his work on public awareness of Wisconsin Trails.

Michael Martin Murphey has teamed up with Western Jubilee Recording Company for two unique albums, Lone Cowboy and Campfire On The Road.  Both of these releases are differentiating from other Murphey releases in that they are solo recordings of Murph performing in the Western Jubilee Warehouse Theater with just him and his guitar.  As close as you may ever get to sitting around the campfire with this master storyteller, songwriter, and musician.

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