Michael Martin Murphey
at the World Cafe Live,
Wilmington, Del. (16 January 2014)

Musically, I still live in the 1970s. For me, it was the decade of high school and college. Memories of these times are inseparable from the music that accompanied them. And 1975 was my year of transition, from high school to college. Songs from '75 are the ones that have really stayed with me.

Michael Martin Murphey's "Wildfire" hit the charts in May 1975. "Carolina in the Pines" came out that August. I loved both of them immediately. I didn't buy a 45-rpm single or an album that included either one, though. Other musical interests occupied my days. Other songs and other songwriters demanded my attention. We had good music back then.

When I did a lot of long-distance driving in the 1990s, I developed a sizable collection of audiocassettes to listen to on the road. I considered the songs that I most wanted to hear, and I looked for albums from the performers that I had previously overlooked. One was The Best of Michael Martin Murphey (1995). Yes, I found that I still loved "Wildfire" and "Carolina in the Pines." But I had forgotten about "What's Forever For," which came out in 1982. And there were other cuts that I had never heard before. Some were thoughtful and soothing. Some were toe-tapping. Michael's music was the perfect accessory for my Midwestern adventures.

Lately I've been thinking about the musicians I have not yet seen in concert, and those that I'd still like to see. Michael Martin Murphey is one who came to mind. Where is he? What has he been doing? I wondered. Turns out he's got a ranch in southern Colorado and has built his own amphitheater in northern New Mexico. He's made a total of 45 albums and does a lot of Cowboy Christmas concerts in the Plains states and in the Southwest each December. He participates in a lot of Cowboy Poetry events, too. His schedule usually keeps him west of the Mississippi River, though. So when I saw that he was making a rare trip to the East Coast, I leapt at the chance to see him.

Wilmington's World Cafe Live is a casual and intimate venue that has two performance areas. The upstairs room can hold at most 150 people, according to the hostess who greeted me as I walked in. She seated me at a table no more than 15 feet from the front of the stage. Are you kidding me? And a nice waitress brought me a terrific pre-show snack of crab biscuits and caramel apple creme brulee. Heaven, I was in heaven! And Michael hadn't even entered the room yet.

But soon enough, there he was, stepping up onto the stage, looking like the authentic cowboy that he is: with white cowboy hat, black suit with long duster, a red bandanna at his neck and an acoustic guitar in his arms. At 69, he looks ageless. And when he immediately launched into the quick pace of "Carolina in the Pines" with a familiar voice, I felt as if I'd been whisked back to 1975.

And yet this was different. It was a solo acoustic concert, with just Michael and his six-string. No piano or banjo players were beside him to fill in the gaps or to take turns at instrumental interludes. No matter. Michael played those parts on his guitar, just fine. I had to smile at the line in the lyric that said that the full moon "brings a fullness to this Earth." I'd just seen the full moon coming up over the horizon, on my way to the city. I'd already gotten a celestial hint that this would be a good night.

Michael's first set consisted of some of his best country and popular songs. He followed the opener with "Lost River," "Vanishing Breed," "Children of the Wild World," "A Long Line of Love" and "Close to the Land (America's Heartland)." Most of these melodies were new to me. "Vanishing Breed" became an instant favorite. It speaks to the joys of a simple life, and of sitting by a fire in a log house, sharing the experience with someone special.

He was animated tonight, and he talked quite a bit between songs. His main topics were ranching, family farms and knowing where your food comes from. He doesn't mind admitting that he's a hunter. "If you eat meat," he said, "it seems to me that you ought to be involved in getting it from the source yourself, every once in a while." That may have been a casual line to him, and one that he repeats often. It hit me hard. I've been a partial vegetarian for more than a dozen years. I swore off red meat in 2000, but I've still been eating chicken, turkey and fish. Well! No more. I know darned well that I would never willingly kill any of those animals myself. Michael's absolutely right. If I want to eat it, I should be able to do the deed. Enough. I'm done with eating meat. (Except for seafood, I think.) How's that for a sudden and unexpected lifestyle change, right in the middle of a concert in Delaware?

He took requests from audience members, since we were sitting so close and were so few in number. I asked for "Boy from the Country." It's a song that Michael wrote, but one that John Denver recorded and popularized. Michael seemed happy to perform it tonight. He talked about meeting John early on in California, and how his own songwriting career took off after John released this song. He felt that he owed some of his success to John. "Boy from the Country" first appeared on the live double album, An Evening with John Denver, which came out in -- you may have guessed it -- 1975. A studio version was later included on John's Some Days are Diamonds album in 1981. Michael wrote the song in 1969, and the lyrics seem to describe John perfectly:

"He tried to tell us that we should love the land.
We just turned our heads and laughed,
You see we did not understand.
But you know sometimes I think
The boy from the country
Must be the only one who sees.
Because the boy from the country
Doesn't want to see the forest
He'd rather see the trees."

I'm a devoted John Denver fan. And ever since his plane fell into Monterey Bay in October 1997, I have been brought to tears hearing anyone sing this song. It was no different tonight. Michael ends his version by deftly combining lines from "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "I'll Fly Away" and "Abraham, Martin, and John." The result is an amazing tribute. Thanks, Michael. I'm glad I got to hear it and that I could thank you in person for it.

He finished his opening set with his first chart hit, "Geronimo's Cadillac." Then he took a short intermission ... though he spent most of it chatting with eager fans.

Michael's second set featured the western side of his catalog. He started off with the D.J. O'Malley classic, "When the Work's All Done This Fall." He explained that this was the first recording of any musical style to ever sell a million copies. Next up was the familiar folk song, "Red River Valley," followed by fellow cowboy poet R.W. Hampton's ballad, "Born to be a Cowboy." Michael returned to his own tunes with "Free Rein," and then "Hardscrabble Creek." The last one is a cut from his newest album, Red River Drifter.

Everyone knew which song he had saved for the end. Before he concluded the show, however, Michael shared something with us. He said that a week earlier, his agent had called him and told him that only 22 tickets had been sold for the Wilmington concert. She asked him if he still wanted to do it, or if he wanted to cancel. Michael told us, "If you promise to drive the cattle to Wichita, I think you ought to drive the cattle to Wichita." He expounded on the need to live up to commitments. Of course, we applauded. There may have been 35 people, tops, at any one time in the room tonight. But we all wanted to be here. We all wanted to hear his music. It would have been our loss -- and his -- if he had held a different attitude. And that was that.

The studio recording of "Wildfire" begins with a few dream-like piano arpeggios. (Appropriate, given that this song first came to Michael in a dream.) But this wasn't the case tonight. You know you're in the presence of a professional when he can whittle a song down to its core and make it sound much fuller and grander than the one with extra musicians and electronic embellishments. Hearing it this way was a real treat. Michael had told us that he never tires of playing "Wildfire," mainly because he's still trying to figure out the meanings of the lyrics. His passion came through, right in front of us.

Afterward, Michael chatted, signed autographs and posed for photos. Amazingly enough, he's not much taller than me. He may stand 5'5" at the most. He seemed to loom larger on the stage. At a nearby table, his friend/roadie Charles sold two CDs: the new Red River Drifter, and a new greatest hits complication called Playing Favorites. Finally, I could replace the 1995 cassette with something that could accompany me on long-distance drives again. Playing Favorites consists of new recordings of Michael's best songs, so they sound slightly different from the originals. But keep an open mind on this score. It's as if you're in a live concert, where the instrumentation and circumstances aren't quite the same as they were in the first studio cuts. The songs sound fresh again.

If you ever have the opportunity to see Michael Martin Murphey in concert, take it. Understand that his primary emphasis is on cowboy and western music, but that he will still acknowledge the tunes that brought him to us, at the beginning of his career. He's still a good guitar player, and he still can hit the high notes. And he seems to be a downright decent person to boot. Who knew?

by Corinne H. Smith
15 February 2014

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