Interview

Michael Martin Murphey Returns to His Roots with High Stakes

A prolific singer songwriter, Michael Martin Murphey has been an integral part of the American musical landscape since the early ‘70s. Murphey has penned and performed perennial favorites like “Wildfire,” “Carolina in the Pines,” and “Geronimo’s Cadillac.” His songs have also been covered by artists like Lyle Lovett, John Denver, Hoyt Axton, Kenny Rogers, and the Monkees. His music has topped the pop, country, bluegrass, and Western music charts, earning him six gold albums and multiple Grammy nominations over the years.

A native Texan, Murphey grew up in Dallas, part of an extended ranching family. Cowboy songs and Western music have always been a part of his life and he’s been a longtime proponent of Western culture, wilderness, and wildlife, as well as the “cowboy lifestyle.” On his latest release, High Stakes: Cowboy Songs VII, Murphey returns to his roots with thirteen songs that celebrate that cowboy culture.

“Cowboy music and country music and the music of the plains were brought here in the 1800s, late 1700s colonial period," Murphey says. "That is Americana music. That is the original American music."

Murphey believes that his home state of Texas, due to its geography and history, was at the center of the creation of this sound.

“[Texas] is the crossroads of black music and Hispanic music and country music and cowboy music," he says. "And in many ways cowboy music from Texas is probably the original American music because it’s so influenced by these."

Murphey’s new album is a mix of original songs and covers. He and his son Ryan co-wrote several of the tunes.

“Working with your own flesh and blood is great," Murphey notes, "and that’s what’s great about the cowboy culture and about the ranchers, too, so it fits right in with my tradition."

Murphey continues, explaining how this father-son collaboration dates back decades: “My son and I have worked together since he was about six years old. He may have even been five when he first went on Austin City Limits with me. He played guitar and sang a Hank Williams song with me. As a teenager, he became my lead guitar player, and over the years, he just became a creative force in my life, including producing a lot of my albums.”

“Three Sons,” a song written by Australian musician John Williamson, is also included on Murphey’s latest release.

“It’s about the pride that [Williamson] has in working with his son on his ranch in Australia,” Murphey explains. “It’s all part of the culture and the way we do business.”

Indeed, family ties are important to Murphey. “My dad and I were very close until the day he died,” he says. “My family’s all been involved in my business in one way or another – all my kids, all my grandkids – in the business of making music and helping me get through it all.”

In addition to family, this album also celebrates the land and the people who work it.

“It has a mission,” Murphey says of High Stakes. “This album is about the struggle of people in the cattle business to be recognized for what they do…The mission of this album is to bring out the struggles and the victories. The pride, the joy, the pain, the tears. It’s a set of cowboy songs all about the big human emotions and experiences. It’s about life and death. It’s about outlaw-ing and keeping the law. It’s about love and about forgiveness and about honor – all wrapped up in these songs and seen through the prism of cowboy life.”

Nice piece Julie...fine songwriter who's been at it a long time...I suppose "Wildfire" put him on the elevators and such, and maybe some folks don't sense he's important because of that and some of the 80's and 90's pop country things he did, but the "Cowboy Songs" projects have all been excellent, and his work and touring with the Sons of the San Joachin, among others, is a testament to his devotion to and preservation of music that is certainly representative of the American experience...an important and underappectiated artist, IMO...

Thank you for taking the time to read it, Jim. He was a fascinating interview! We spent quite a bit of time talking about "Holistic Grazing," which was really interesting. 

Is Michael an advocate of that?...I remember reading something about that many years ago, but I guess I hadn't heard much about that recently...the theory of the scientist was based on some natural grazing experiment in Rhodesia that was undertaken because the grasslands had turned in to deserts due to the reduction in the number of free ranging livestock and the changes in their behavior when the herds are thinned (that's a terrible oversimplification but I'm no scientist nor farmer)...sounded like a great idea if it worked on a large scale...are they actually doing that somewhere? 

 

He is! He consulted with Allan Savory from Zimbabwe on his own ranching operations in New Mexico. Fascinating theory. 

That's the guy!  Allan Savory...should have googled it...the original study/theory originated in the 60's or 70's...it is fascinating...not much to do with music I guess but interesting for sure...