Legend of Western music to play sold-out show in Steamboat
Michael Martin Murphey comes from what he’s named the campfire theory — “If it doesn’t sound good with only one guitar, it might not be a good song.”
Murphey’s first job was working as a camp counselor, often writing and playing campfire music for the kids. Now, half a century, 40-some albums and multiple Grammy nominations later, he feels his career has come full circle.
“When I do my acoustic shows, I’m back around a campfire, telling stories,” he said.
Murphey will play his sold-out, solo acoustic show at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21 at the Chief Theater. It’s part of a tour he does twice per year. He’ll play mostly guitar and mountain-style banjo.
Murphey is often called the leading voice and number-one selling artist of American cowboy music, but his material ranges from country to pop to bluegrass to Western to soft rock — he’s even done albums of Christmas songs.
The singer-songwriter is similarly adaptable in his musicianship. Besides guitar and banjo, he plays ukulele, piano, mandolin and harmonica and is self-taught on them all.
Murphey’s suburban upbringing in East Texas, in a family of pawn shop owners who often had new instruments to explore, contributed to this. His grandfather, a rancher who encouraged Murphey to spend time in nature, was fond of taking Murphey to music shops. He gave the boy a ukulele, and seeing his grandson’s quick progress, gifted him a Martin guitar the next Christmas.
As Murphey grew more interested in music, he often watched live local shows featuring musicians he describes as not famous but good, and willing to share.
“If you hear them play on a record, it’s a mystery, but when you hear it live and see it, you conclude that you have the same human body and heart as them, and you conclude, ‘I can do this, too,’” Murphey said.
Throughout college at University of California at Los Angeles, Murphey found his campfire-type audience in coffee houses. After seeing moderate success playing, recording and writing in the Los Angeles folk scene, Murphey moved to a village outside of the Mojave Desert to concentrate on songwriting, then back to the Dallas area.
In the mid-1970s, Murphey’s country song “Wildfire” topped charts and splashed his name over the country scene. In 1982, he was voted Top New Male Vocalist of the Year by the Academy of Country Music.
Murphey’s 1990 release of “Cowboy Songs” sold shockingly well, earning Gold status — despite the genre of cowboy music’s having faded from the mainstream two decades prior. He’s earned a place in Texas, Colorado and Nebraska’s country music halls of fame. He played on the David Letterman Show and at John Wayne’s 100th birthday celebration.
Besides touring, Murphey teaches songwriting workshops and seminars at Utah State University.
A large, underlying motivation in most of Murphey’s music-making is a noble one. He’s been an advocate involved in a variety of ways for a variety of causes. His song “Geronimo’s Cadillac” was used as an anthem for a Native American rights movement, which led to Murphey becoming an adopted member of the Lakota and Kiowa nations.
Murphey has also focused on private property and water rights, supporting New Mexico and Wisconsin ranchers in rights disputes with government. Murphey also began West Fest, a touring festival promoting Western music and culture, which has toured on and off since 1987, including a 2001 stop in Steamboat.
The cause Murphey speaks of most passionately, perhaps, is one he believes will save the planet.
Murphey’s environmental position is that of “holistic management,” which controversially suggests adding cattle and other split-hooved animals to the planet’s deserts to mimic the grazing, manure and movement patterns of prehistoric herds to regrow grasslands. The hypothesis gained attention in founder Allan Savory’s 2013 TED talk, “How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change.”
“I’m just trying to be a lyricist of the culture that Savory is talking about,” Murphey said.
He avoids talking politics but has found his way of being an effective change agent.
“If your songs for activism are a bunch of whining, complaining songs, people don’t want to hear it,” Murphey said. “But in any social change issue, if you can bring out the beauty in something and people are enchanted, they’re a whole lot more likely to fight for saving that thing.”
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The 20th anniversary season of Opera Steamboat will kick off this month with a new series, the “Variations Piano Series,” bringing world-class pianists from across the country to Steamboat Springs.