With a music career spanning more than 40 years and 35 albums, Western music icon Michael Martin Murphey has a lot to say.
The Durango Herald interviewed him by telephone Tuesday. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: How would you define “cowboy culture”?
A: It’s about livestock. There are no cowboys without livestock. There’s no such thing as a cowboy without taking care of cows. That said, there is a culture that has surrounded that fact that has grown up in our country because it has been such an important part of our nation’s history, and the cowboys and the cattlemen, because of their freer life ... their freer life led to a lot of songs and music, and it’s a very ebullient, joyful experience, and when you talk about the big subjects of life and death, they can also be tragic. But there’s a sense of endurance through the tragedy.
Q: Are there any up-and-coming artists who are carrying on the cowboy music tradition?
A: Oh sure. In music, absolutely. Brenn Hill is a really good example of that. ... His music is extremely authentic, very poetic, very strong. It’s strongly in the tradition of what I’ve tried to write.
Q: What’s something we don’t know about you?
A: What most people don’t know about me is my strong interest in anything and everything. I’m an intellectual by interest, not card-carrying branding. Intellectual just means you’re just extremely interested in everything and how everything relates to everything else. And I do a tremendous amount of reading, not only about Western history, which is my favorite subject, and Western grasslands, Western agriculture and stuff like that, but I also just read everything – I just love to look into just about any subject. I have a huge library of about 7,000 books that I’ve collected since I was 13 years old.
I also have a nonprofit foundation of Western heritage called Murphey Western Institute, and we put a lot of programming on, and we support our causes. We just restored, or raised a lot of money for the restoration of, the cabin that “Home on the Range” was written in up in northwestern Kansas. We do a lot of stuff with Native Americans. We’re very actively involved. We don’t get political – there’s no politics in Murphey Western Institute; we just talk about issues.
The other thing is I have a granddaughter in a wheelchair that has a rare disease that’s called osteogenesis imperfecta, which is brittle bone disease, and I’ve started a foundation her name called Fiona Rose Murphey Trust. ... This is a foundation that helps kids with these incredible physical challenges become the next Stephen Hawking. We put on quite a few events for this. We just finished a trail ride – a trail ride for people who are capable of riding horses raising money for people who aren’t capable of riding horses.
Q: Is there one song you dislike performing?
A: You know, not really because if it brings somebody joy, if it was a hit and a lot of people like it, then it’s not about me, it’s about them. And for the joy they experience, no song becomes tedious.
Q: Forty years is a pretty long career. Do you have any plans of slowing down?
A: I started out writing songs when I was a teenager, and I published my first song when I was 18 years old. I spent the first part of my career writing songs for Sparrow Music out in LA when I was a student at UCLA and then Screen Gems. And then I got my first record deal in 1972, that was when I put out “Geronimo’s Cadillac.” I’ve been dong this all my life. All I’ve ever done to make a living is write songs and sell records and sell tickets to concerts. All of my ranching is strictly a secondary investment because it’s something I love to do and actively do. I’ve only been able to do that because of my career in music.
Actually, I think I’m speeding up. My new album is called “High Stakes,” and it’s a lot about the struggle of the ranching culture to survive and cowboys to survive, but it’s also about the age that I am now, and what comes across at this point in your life.
The song says: “In between the Earth and sky/Not too low and not too high/You’re all alone in the unknown/Don’t look back and don’t take stock/Let it reel and let it rock/Get in the zone/When you are coming around the curve and you start to lose your nerve, don’t be scared, take a dare/Stomp the pedal to the floor, give it just a little more/ You’re almost there/You don’t understand the cards you’re holding and your hands start to shake, high stakes/If you’re feeling like a fool ’cause you’re breaking every rule, and it feels great, high stakes.”
It’s been quite a career, and the joy of my life has been always being in a place where I’m working and inspired by younger minds.
Q: Is there anything you still want to do?
A: I’m very interested in writing books now, writing an autobiography. I’m very interested in just pure poetry rather than just the lyrics to a song. I’m very interested in developing some fiction and nonfiction stories and books. As I start to slow down physically, I want to increase the mental part ... There’s a lot more that I want to do, and I’m not going to say that I’ll never get it done because maybe I will.