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VALLEY WEEKEND | MUSIC

Cowboy Sings the Praises of the West

Texas-born Michael Martin Murphey has triggered a resurgence of interest in the region. He's on the trail to Palmdale.

November 28, 1996|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most folks laughed when the title characters of "The Blues Brothers" sauntered into a honky-tonk and asked, "What kind of music do you usually have here?"

"Oh, we got both kinds," the barmaid replied. "Country and western."

Michael Martin Murphey undoubtedly got the joke but he might not have laughed.

Murphey has had a 25-year genre-hopping musical career, ranging from 1970s pop hits such as "Geronimo's Cadillac" and "Wildfire" to the No. 1 country single, "Long Line of Love," in 1987.

But in recent years, Murphey has turned his singing and songwriting talents toward the folk songs and traditional ballads of America's cowboys. Championing not just the music, but all of Western culture, Murphey has become a leading figure in the largest resurgence of interest in the West since the 1940s.

Murphey brings his Cowboy Christmas Ball--an adaptation of a century-old Texas holiday tradition--to the Palmdale Playhouse Sunday at 3 and 7 p.m. With a seasonal set that includes trees, a campfire and even snow, Murphey and his Rio Grande Band will perform traditional carols plus "Two-Step Round the Christmas Tree" and other selections from his album, "Cowboy Christmas: Cowboy Songs II."

Unlike most citizens of this century, Murphey's early notions of the West didn't stem from a Hollywood back lot. He grew up in Oak Cliff, Texas, outside Dallas, but spent summers at family ranches in east Texas and Arkansas.

"When I watched my first western on TV, I thought those guys were the real cowboys--Gene Autry and Roy Rogers--and we were some kind of hicks," Murphey said.

He eventually came to California, attended UCLA and wrote music for TV shows. But after a few years he returned to Texas and became part of the burgeoning Austin music scene. Since 1978 Murphey has lived on a working horse ranch in Taos, N.M.

More than just living the cowboy experience, Murphey has immersed himself in the history of the American West, especially the golden age of cowboys between the Civil War and World War I. He has a collection of more than 4,000 books on the West. He can--and with little prompting, will--talk at length about cattle drives, trail crews and the ethnic diversity of cowhands.

While the West was not devoid of prejudice, he said, Mexicans, ex-slaves and Native Americans were common on trail crews.

The music that emerged from this group is distinctly American, an amalgam of Scottish and Irish ballads, Spanish and Mexican guitar, and black spirituals.

"This is not some politically correct retro-history," Murphey said. "Black cowboys had a tremendous impact on cowboy music." The sound is also markedly different from country, which has its roots in the bluegrass music of the hills of Appalachia.

It wasn't until 1936, when singing cowboys like Gene Autry started to sell huge volumes of records and movie tickets that the Grand Ole Opry started to incorporate the cowboy image. Nashville has so appropriated the image, said Murphey, that now a hat and boots are the requisite uniform of country singers.

Murphey clearly takes his musicology seriously, so much so that he did three years of research for his first western album, "Cowboy Songs," in 1990.

That album almost didn't come to be. Murphey tried for eight years to convince producer Jim Ed Norman to let him make a record of genuine cowboy music. "He was very tenacious," said Norman, president of Warner/Reprise Nashville, "not only in his desire to do the record, but his belief that this record had great value."

Norman was wary. Record sales of mainstream country artists--Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt--were abundant. But western? "There was no precedent," Norman said. "There was no indication that there was any interest for this in the marketplace."

In 1990, Murphey--with Norman producing--finally made "Cowboy Songs," but that didn't mean Warner was ready to market it. The promotions department refused to put out a single or make a video because they thought it would be a waste of money.

So Murphey talked Ralph Emery into doing a western music special on his Nashville Network show, "Nashville Now." At every commercial break, the network aired a toll-free number to order the album. It sold 100,000 copies in the next two months.

With almost no radio airplay, "Cowboy Songs" sold more than 400,000 copies--and counting--which simultaneously astounded and impressed Warner. Within a year, Norman started a sub label--Warner Western.

Their roster is as diverse as the trail crews recalled by Murphey: Herb Jeffries, the black singing cowboy from the 1930s movie "The Bronze Buckaroo"; Native American musician Robert Mirabal; and Sons of the San Joaquin. The label also takes its wares directly to market, selling CDs in tack shops, feed stores and western apparel outlets.

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