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MICHAEL MARTIN MURPHEY: SHARING HIS LOVE OF WEST WITH UTAHNS

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A self-described gypsy, Michael Martin Murphey makes it a point to reject offers that would tie him down.

But in his wanderings - and he spends half the year on the road performing - the country-Western singer/songwriter/musician never tires of talking or singing about the place he believes is the most exciting in the world.The West.

July 1-3, Murphey will bring "what's best about the West, both old and contemporary" to Deer Valley. His West Fest celebration features art and craft exhibits by 150 artists, pow wows, food and plenty of live music by Western singers and bands.

"West Fest is like a Holy Grail to me," Murphey said in a recent telephone interview. "It's a tribute to the art, music and general culture of the old and new West. It's kind of a modern-day version of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. I think that the fascination with the West and its colorful history is still growing and is real strong."

The Utah Symphony conducted by Christopher Wilkins will join Murphey for one show. Other performers include New Grass Revival, Highway 101, John McEuen, Don Edwards, John Stewart, the Famous Motel Cowboys, Cowjazz, Riders in the Sky, Chris LeDoux and Jerry Jeff Walker, as well as cowboy poet Waddy Mitchell and Hal Cannon. (See accompanying schedule.)

West Fest was held in Copper Mountain, Colo., for three years, then Murphey decided to bring it to Utah. Besides the music, food and art, he said, "It will feature glasnost between the cowboys and Indians. It's not just for buffs. It's for anyone who is looking to rediscover Western history.

The festival is a natural product of his talents and passions, Murphey said. He was born in Texas. Now, he tries to spend a lot of time with his wife, Mary, and their son, 8, and daughter, 6, on the family ranch in Taos, New Mexico.

"They miss me when I'm gone," he reported happily. "They get pretty morose, especially my boy. So I like to cheer him up by staying home.

"I hate the fact that I might be reading him `Robin Hood' and have to stop halfway through. I'm teaching him to shoot the bow and arrow and we have to stop. That's hard on both of us, so we spend a lot of money to be together whenever we can. Like flying him to spend the weekend on tour, then back in time for school on Monday."

If it sounds like he's lonely or miserable, Murphey hastens to correct the impression. "This is the most exciting time in my life. I'm doing a lot of things. I don't want to overstress the misery of being on the road. We're gypsies - adaptable. I think it's a great opportunity for my family. We live family life on wings and wheels a lot, and most of the time we're real happy."

Murphey's been making music since he was a boy. In fact, at 13, he learned to play on a plastic ukelele his parents considered a toy. Today, a Michael Martin Murphey concert might feature his versatility on the guitar, banjo or piano. And he sometimes throws in a foot-stomping demonstration of his clogging ability.

"Wildfire," which first brought him critical attention, is still his favorite song, though he's released a number of albums since he recorded it almost 15 years ago.

"It's by far and away my favorite song; it's been such a staple for me for so long. I revere it for its value and what it's done for my life. It came out of my dreams, and things out of dreams take years to understand. But it was so vivid it only took about an hour to write that song. I remember thinking, this is a really strange experience writing this song."

"Land of Enchantment," just released, is now available in record stores. On it, he offers a mixture of love songs, songs about the West and even one about a runaway girl (Murphey has long been involved in the national runaway hotline. His "What She Wants" was used as the hotline theme.)

His recent efforts, though, have centered around getting his community and state legislature to establish ambulance service in the county where he lives.

"My wife's worked on that year in and year out. Sometimes the real need is in your own back yard but you get involved getting national attention and don't notice it," he said. "Well, our son has asthma. And our county has never been willing to run emergency room services; they've all been voluntary, private services. We just haven't had proper emergency medicine."

It took years of hard work and lobbying, but they finally won and he seems as proud of that victory as of any of his awards.

Such activities, he said, don't mean he's an activist. He doesn't go looking for causes. But if he finds them and he believes in them, he'll work at achieving them. In his own way. He saves activism for his art.

"You can hang a blue square on the wall, and people will come along and read something into it. There's no such thing as art that's not activist. It holds up a certain vision of life in a certain way and says, `This is my vision of it!' "

He doesn't have many plans.

"I'm developing projects where I'll have a say and creative energy. But I never try to plot out the future. Too many wonderful things pop up. I don't try to second guess because plans blow up or fall short of the goal. The good things that happen are the ones you didn't plan."

So he lets the future stretch out to surprise him.

Like the hues and shape of the West he so dearly loves.