JUN/JUL 2003 / VOL. 4 ISSUE 1
It's All in the Name

Cowboy Singer Murphey Touches on Gaelic Roots

By Martin Hintz

Singer Michael Martin Murphey was sitting on his front porch, looking out over the rolling hills around Westby, Wis. His electrical power was off, as line crew worked in the valley below his house. Only the phones were operating and a bulldozer's rumble could be heard in the background as he talked about cowboys, music, the Irish and horses. 

Murphey could have been at his ranch in New Mexico or his hacienda near Plano, Tex. But the Western recording artist was between gigs, so he was pausing at the Murphey Rocking Ranch North in Wisconsin. Since he performs between 100 and 150 concerts a year, any chance for a layover was welcome.

"We usually travel by bus. But sometimes I drive or take the train if a show is close by," Murphey, 58, related. "Gypsy, I guess."

His dad, Lavare Pickney (Pink) Murphey III, however, was a CPA and not as prone to moving around as his son. But Murphey's brother, Mark, 53, is a member of the Ashland (Ore.) Repertory Theater and has been known to travel, too. 

Murphey began waxing about his lineage. "My grandfather, Spud Murphey, was sort of an entertainer. He was a magician, played mandolin and was a boxing champ. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese bombing and went on to the general quartermaster for the Navy. He was a good friend of Adm. Nimitz," Murphey recalled. 

"He didn't want my dad born in Hawaii, because it wasn't a state then. So he came to Dallas where my father was born," today's Murphey added. The family then then moved back and forth from the mainland to the island. His grandfather, "who knew a lot of cowboy songs," then retired in Hawaii. So, as youngster, Murphey would visit and learn about Hawaiian cowboys, playing a plastic ukulele his grandfather gave him.

When Murphey was 13, he graduated to a Martin D-28 and began playing at church socials, coffeehouses and house concerts. In his early twenties, Murphey also played cowboy tunes for guests at Sky Ranch in Lewisville, Tex., and Hidden Falls Ranch, near Amarillo. As a student at UCLA, Murphey became a promoter of alternative country and western music. He hung out with John McEuen and Jeff Hannah of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Don Henley of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Roger Miller, Buck Owens, Michael Nesmith of the Monkees and many others musicians floating around Southern California of the time. 

He kept up his singing and writing and performing, with his first published song, "Black Tattered Rags" came out when Murphey was only 19.

Subsequently, over the years, Murphey has written numerous award-wining songs and appeared regularly on television programs such as "Austin City Limits" and "the Tonight Show." Many other entertainers, including John Denver, Kenny Rogers and Lyle Lovett have recorded his tunes. He's good pals with Cowboy Celtic, a noted Irish cowboy band from Canada. 

Murphey is proud of his Irish background, descending from Col. Archibald Murphey served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War. That Murphey's son, Archibald Debow Murphey, was a founding member of the University of North Carolina and the State of North Carolina. He was a judge, scholar, teacher and farmer. His son, Alexander Hamilton Murphey, came to Texas when it was a colony under Mexico, musician Murphey related proudly.

Alexander's son was a pawnshop owner and watchmaker who patented the first mechanical digital watch. The pawnshop was always full of fine instruments and the family still owns Murphey the Jeweler in Tyler,Tex. Michael's great-grandfather was a Methodist preacher in Texas. And the lineage goes on. "I'm just fascinated by all that history," Murphey said.

He explained how the family name has morphed over the years as the Gaelic was Anglicized. "There's Murthy, O'Murphy, Murphy and our spelling as Murphey," he said.

"I guess we have the Irish charm," he then laughed but admitted he has never been to Ireland. The closest he came to the Auld Sod was marrying an English girl whose mother was a McAlister from Northern Ireland. The Murpheys were boarding a Stateisde plane to fly over for a visit but an IRA bomb attack in London curtailed that flight. "Nobody named Murphey was going to be allowed into Northern Ireland that time," he indicated. "That just wouldn't float."

"You know the term 'cow boy,' is well known in Scotland and Ireland. The cow boys were the cattle drovers in the 19th century," Murphey said, saying that Wild West star Buffalo Bill Cody defined the term and made the two words as "cowboy." He told how many Irish immigrants headed to the frontier to get jobs on ranches after they landed in America. 

At the time, Murphey said, the classic movie image of the Western "cowboy" hadn't been formed. "The trail drovers, as they were more commonly called, were lower class, the bottom of the ladder," he explained. "Some men worked only for food and a place to live. But there's one thing. The Irish always took their music with them, whether to Cuba, Australia or America," he went on.

"In the 19th century, they'd sit around and play music from the Old Country. The Irish music was really popular. I guess other cultures didn't really do such a good job in promoting their music. Anyway, the Irish instruments were portable: the mouth harp, the concertina," he added.

According to Murphey, the guitar was more of a Mexican instrument, with music from south of the border flavored with German polka s because of the influence of the European rulers there. "But 90% of classic cowboy music has Irish or Scottish roots. 'The Streets of Laredo' is the 'Bard of Armagh,'" he pointed out.

Murphey added that the Scottish troops who put down Canada's Red River Rebellion in the 1800s used to sing while on the march. The drovers picked up the tunes as they filtered down from Canada and adapted the words. 

"I love the cowboy lifestyle, the cattle, ranching," admitted Murphey. Subsequently, in addition to his singing, he keeps his hands in the outdoor roundup business now helping his wife Karen raise quarter horses. Karen Murphey, a native of Illinois who has lived in Wisconsin for more than 15 years, has been inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth and appears there in a film on ranch women. 

Murphey will be performing at the grounds of the Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee, giving 11:30 a.m. and 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. concerts, Thursday, July 10, following the Wild West Revue. "I'd ride an elephant if it wouldn't buck me off," he laughed, then quickly added that he would be wiser sticking to animals that he knew, such as horses.



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