Coulee Country Cowboy
Michael Murphy backed his mud-crusted pickup truck into a parking lot edging the Mississippi River in downtown La Crosse. Much like his truck, Murphy's accoutrements were well used and distinctive: cowboy hat, rancher coat, bandana necktie, western vest, cowboy boots.
Best known for the 1975 hit song "Wildfire," Murphy unloaded two guitars from the small trailer behind his truck and carried the instruments into the venue where he would perform a benefit show later that night. After a quick sound check, he drove back to his Vernon County ranch to shower and change into a clean set of clothes for the evening's performance: cowboy hat, rancher coat, bandana necktie, western vest, cowboy boots.
From head to toe, Michael Martin Murphy is a cowboy.
The question is: What is Murphy, the man cited as one of America’s best songwriters and a true wrangler and rancher, doing in America’s Dairyland?
“The really big question is why did the cowboys get out of Wisconsin,” Murphy chuckled. “I went down to Chaseburg to a restaurant the other night and saw some of the pictures on the wall from the 1800s. There were a lot of cowboy hats in this region.
“Wisconsin people have always had a stake in the west.”
He grew up in Dallas, the son of an accountant who wanted his son to experience life outside the city.
“My grandfather and uncles were all cattle and horse ranchers. They were cowboys. I was close enough to a ranch to go out there every weekend, and three months of the year I went with them.”
Murphy – he prefers you call him Murph – learned to rope and ride with the best of them, and music filled air around the evening campfires.
“The Murphys have always had pawn shops as a side business over in east Texas since the 1830s. My grandfather knew the difference between a Martin and a Gibson. He knew what the good instruments were. My first guitar was a Martin given to me by my grandfather.”
Murphy was five years old. Taking on traditional cowboy music and equestrianship with equal skill, he became a child performer, entertaining the city folk who visited Texas ranches for a taste of cowboy life.
“I wanted to be a singing cowboy, but I wanted to write my own songs.”
Moving to California to study literature and history at UCLA, Murphy found himself in midst of the exploding music scene of the mid-sixties. It happened that fellow Texan Michael Nesmith landed a job with a musical group formed for a new TV show, The Monkeys. Murphy’s song “What am I doing Hanging Around” was recorded by the group. Murphy became a favorite in the L.A. music scene, associating with kindred spirits like Linda Rondstadt and members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Eagles, among others.
His return to Texas in 1970 proved as fateful as his time in California. As a resident performer in Austin, Murphy was instrumental in spreading the word about the city’s burgeoning music scene, particularly a venue called the Armadillo World Headquarters.
Among the folks who joined Murphy in Austin were Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, and a songwriter who was fed up with the Nashville music establishment, Willie Nelson.
“We began to produce a progressive country sound as it were. All that really means is it sounded pretty hillbilly but the lyrics were a little more interesting,” Murphy laughed. “Not every lyric was drinking, divorce and depression, the staples of country music.”
When Murphy toured to support his 1972 debut album “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” he asked Nelson to be his opening act. The two remain good friends.
The fusion of various strains of American music, typically called country-rock, which started in L.A. in the 60s, took flight from Austin in the 70s, and Murphy was a founding father. His tune “Cosmic Cowboy” served as the genre’s unofficial theme song.
His third album produced the smash hit “Wildfire” and the follow-up single “Carolina in the Pines.”
Murphy would see a string of hit songs on country radio throughout the 80s, hitting No. 1 with “A Long Line of Love” in 1987.
“I went through a lot of different phases, got into a lot of different music -- jazz, rock-n-roll, the whole thing,” he recounted, “but I always had the cowboy hat and always wore the cowboy boots.”
In 1989 Murphy returned to music rooted in his east Texas childhood.
“I went back to cowboy music and stuck with it.”
“I have really found this to be incredible horse country,” Murphy said of western Wisconsin, where he has operated the Rocking 3M Ranch for ten years with wife Karen, a longtime Wisconsin resident, and his three stepdaughters.
“This is becoming prime horse country very quickly in southwest Wisconsin because of its great grazing, great grass - plenty of feed here. And there is getting to be more and more events, horse clubs, competitions.”
“We raised our girls here in the cowboy life. They had no problem…roping, barrel racing, horse competitions and events pretty much every weekend.”
Murphy cites the annual Midwest Horse Fair in Madison as one of the nation’s premier events, and he considers the riding trails at Wildcat Mountain State Park some of the best in the nation.
“Except for the difference in accent,” he said with a hint of drawl still in his voice, “this area is so much like the area I grew up in, the pines in east Texas, what they call the big thicket. Not quite as extreme rolling as the coulees, but close. A lot of pines, a lot of deep woods and then open pastures in between. The people were very much like the people up here. Great neighbors, great farmers.”
More than boots and spurs
Murphy's return to traditional music garnered more gold records for the artist and made him the most successful cowboy singer since Marty Robbins in the late 1950s. He is credited with single-handedly reviving the genre. Moreover he has become a leading voice for issues facing modern day cowboys, speaking with the all the assurance of a dirt-on-his-boots rancher.
“It's a big subject, a complicated subject,” he said of cowboying in the 21st Century. “It involves agriculture, ranching, farming, people's private property and the right to do as you want on your own land. I've been involved in a lot political and legal fights over that. It’s not Democrat or Republican, it’s about what I believe is the basic core of any nation - agriculture. The heartland is the essence of the nation because without the ability to grow food and have natural resources the nation isn’t much.
“I think urban people just aren’t aware of it – what the lives are like of the people just up the road who are growing the food. It means a tremendous amount to me because I'm in the business myself.
“Agriculture is still the number one business of our nation. In the last presidential election when did you hear either candidate talk about it? Our presidents in their state of the union speeches never address the number one business of the nation.”
She ran calling...
For all the success Murphy has had in progressive country, mainstream country and traditional American music, he will never surpass the renown of the pop song that practically wrote itself.
“I actually dreamed it,” he said of “Wildfire,” which hit No. 1 on multiple music charts in May 1975. He polished the song in a matter of hours after waking up.
“The meaning of it has always been a mystery to me. I don't entirely know what the song means.”
The ubiquitous single uses dream imagery to tell a mysterious tale of a ghost horse and its female rider.
One of the most played songs in radio history – more than four million plays and counting - was nearly the hit that never happened.
“The one song I presented to the producers and record label that they did not want put on the album was ‘Wildfire.’ I asked if they would just give me the creative freedom to put it on there."
"It surprised me,” he said of the song’s success. “It was almost an afterthought that I forced onto the album, and I didn’t think it would be a single.”
Interestingly, one of the top three markets for record sales was Milwaukee.
"It talks about the Midwest plains, it doesn’t talk about Arizona. I think people here could relate to it.”
More than three decades after the song charted, in 2007, David Letterman couldn’t get the tune out of his head and frequently lapsed into “Wildfire” during his Late Night program. Murphy was eventually invited to perform it on the show.
With all he has accomplished, does Murphy ever grow weary of that one song?
“It's my signature song. I know people who have had twenty number one songs but you wouldn’t connect their name to any of them. I think the most blessed man in the world is the man who has a signature song.”
Murphy drove from his ranch to headline a benefit show on behalf of Horse Sense For Special Riders, a La Crosse program pairing special needs individuals with horses.
He spends virtually every weekend performing nationwide in venues ranging from opera houses and tent shows to the Grand Ole Opry. His concerts seamlessly mix Murphy’s original songs with 19th Century cowboy music, just as he imagined as a child. His recent Buckaroo Bluegrass album is a collection of original songs, including a new versions of Murphy’s own standards "Cherokee Fiddle" and “Carolina in the Pines.” He’s currently working on an album of old-time gospel.
“I’m kind of hung up on the old 19th Century Methodist and Baptist tent revival songs. I’m not a very big fan of the contemporary gospel music. You have to listen closely to hear if there is anything about the gospel in there. I’m having fun with that (album),” he said, breaking into the opening verse of “Blessed Assurance, Jesus in mine!”
Murphy gazed at the Mississippi River rolling along no more than a horseshoe toss away.
“I can imagine the wild West kind of stuff that happened right here along the river. Buffalo Bill Cody was from Iowa, Wyatt Earp from Illinois. The real story of the cowboy is not in the West, it’s in the Midwest. The Chisholm Trail did not go to Aspen and Vail. The Chisholm Trail went to the stockyards north. Chicago was the ultimate destination.”
In that context it’s not surprising to see a true cowboy among the white pines of Wisconsin.
“I do lots of songwriting right here. I have a studio, an old garage I converted to a studio behind my house. I sit there and look over the coulees and write all the time. I have to look out at the land when I write.”
While he will always be a proud son of Texas, Murphy's long and fascinating ride seems to have found a comfortable encampment in the Badger State.
“I think the people of Wisconsin are some of the most remarkable people in the world. I haven’t felt like a fish out of water here at all, I feel like I went home."
And, he said adjusting his cowboy hat with a knowing grin, "If your tractor breaks down, there’s an 11 year-old kid across the road who can fix it.”
Michael Bie, 2009