The evolution of Michael Martin Murphey has been interesting to watch. He's gone from folky balladeer, to teen idol, to soft rock star to big-time cowboy singer.
Where's he headed next?If Monday night's concert in Cache Valley is any indication, he'll be running for Congress - probably on the Davy Crockett ticket.
Made bold by the recent elections and the hard-scrabble values found in the ranch songs he loves to sing, Murphey spent a good share of the evening at the Eccles going after Hollywood, smokeless tobacco, tequila, gangs, gun control, mega-corporations and pretty much anyone else ornery enough to disparage traditional values. In a program he described as "half cowboy music and half cowboy Christmas music," Murphey did everything but sing Merle Haggard's anthem, "The Fightin' Side of Me." He seemed for all the world like someone trying to build a political base and platform. Senator Murphey from New Mexico? Don't bet against it.
And it all went down like a dinner. Cowboy music fans in out-of-the-way counties seldom work for the ACLU, and Murphey knew he was on friendly turf from the first note. People couldn't get enough of him.
Opening with his hit "Cowboy Logic," Murphey proceeded to string together famous and not-so-famous cowboy songs. He sang the first cowboy song ever recorded, "When the Work Is Done this Fall" (it sold a million copies of Thomas Edison's famous cylinders), and he sang the song that has been played the most on international radio (Marty Robbins' "El Paso"). In between there were cuts from some of his own albums, old standards from the cowboy canon such as "Big Iron on His Hip" and "The Ballad of Jesse James." And there were plenty of jokes and tidbits of philosophy.
Murphey did offer up "Wildfire" from his own parade of hits, but it was unnecessary. The real strength of Michael Martin Mur-phey's new breed of cowboy lore is the man has tapped into a tradition so broad, honest and interesting that people don't care if he sings his own material or not. They feel perfectly satisfied to sit and listen to him croon the old range ballads. And that speaks well for Murphey and his priorities (Imagine Garth Brooks doing a concert without doing one of his hits.)
After spending the first half of the evening dressed like a winter range hand, Murphey returned for the second part of the show dressed like a circuit rider - an intinerant preacher in a Christmas-red vest.
The band - a tight six-man combo that stayed razor sharp all night - did some nice western turns on "Oh Christmas Tree," "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," "The Skater's Waltz" and other holiday ditties. But the strength of the Christmas segment was in the spoken word as much as the music. Murphey pulled out a pair of glasses and read several cowboy poems, verse that set the tone for "The Cowboy Christmas Ball," "Merry Texas Christmas, Ya'll," "Christmas Cowboy Style" and other tips of the Stetson to the season.
The singers then finished with a solo encore on "Corn, Water and Wood," then called Malad, Idaho poet Colin Sweet to the stage to recite a few of his own cowboy Christmas poems while Murphey and the boys played "Away in a Manger" behind him.
Ryan Murphey - the singer's son - played lead guitar most of the night was even allowed to solo on a piece the two Murpheys had co-written.
In all, it was one of those down home - though definitely show biz - kind of nights that seldom leave people feeling cheated.
And - if things go right - a night that may even help Michael Martin Murphey in his evolution.