|It's All in the Name
Cowboy Singer Murphey Touches on Gaelic Roots
By Martin Hintz
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.
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.
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,"
"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
"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.