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October 15, 2018

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The Rural Thing: ‘Wildfire’ author Michael Martin Murphey fights to preserve Western tradition

Cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey is driving across Wisconsin. His diesel engine rattles as he pulls to the side of the road for better cell phone reception and a chance to talk about government bureaucracy.

It's a topic that's become prominent for the artist whose 1970s hit "Wildfire" gave him mainstream recognition.

A rancher himself and noted cowboy poet, Murphey has become an outspoken activist fighting eminent domain that is sweeping up the ranches of the West in a battle over development, water and grazing rights.

"I don't want to get out there and sing nice little cowboy songs that make everyone nostalgic about the West and ignore the ranchers," says Murphey, who will be performing Sunday in Beatty as part of the town's centennial celebration.

"People have come to know that I've always had core values in my music. I've always had something to say. My music is about cowboy culture and the people who grow our foods, making their money living on our lands."

A songwriter who studied creative writing, poetry and literature at UCLA, Murphey grew up in Dallas and spent his childhood on family ranches listening to cowboy songs and stories, an experience that helped carve a lifestyle.

He lives among thousands of acres of wilderness and tracks about a thousand miles of horse riding each year. His 35-album repertoire pays tribute to nature, relationships, the Wild West and includes such cowboy classics as "Happy Trails."

When not fighting for ranchers or American Indians, Murphey is writing and recording, leading trail rides or touring.

He begins his Cowboy Christmas Tour this month in Raton, N.M., which will put him in another city nearly every night through the end of the year.

A cowboy to the bone, Murphey's Web site links to cowboy and cowgirl museums, Western heritage and horse associations. He celebrates the lifestyle at annual cowboy poetry gatherings.

In 1987 founded the WestFest, an annual music festival held in Snowmass Village, Colo., that has featured dozens of country and cowboy singers, including Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang and Willie Nelson.

But don't confuse him with the bulk of today's country musicians, whom he sees merely as posers, not living the true country lifestyle.

"Country music, it has nothing to do with rural areas, nothing to do with the land," Murphey says. "They don't grow up in the country. They don't live in the country. It's kind of like singing trucking songs and never riding behind the wheel of a semi.

"I've always lived in the country. My whole career I've lived in the country. I'm not a city guy."

Ranching life

Murphey owns ranches in New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Vernon County, Wis. (which claims more organic farms per capita in the United States than any other county), and supports organic farming.

He's elated that Bush (for whom he campaigned) was re-elected, but says he's even more conservative than the president on some issues. And by involving himself in noted cases from Wayne Hage in Northern Nevada to Kit Laney in New Mexico, he takes what he says are bipartisan stands against the government.

"I truly believe that the ranchers and farmers are environmentalists and taking care of their land," Murphey says. "When somebody comes in and says they're not, and can't come up with the science to prove it, then there's something else on their agenda."

Murphey fuels some of this energy into articles about ranching, published in such magazines as Cowboys & Indians and American Cowboy.

Occasionally, he'll write something personal, such as "Clint's Last Ride," a story Murphey had published in Range magazine. The story told of Murphey's friend dying of cancer, who wanted to take his last horse ride. Murphey and another friend rode beside him for half a day.

"That's nothing about morals, politics or ethics, but a man who wanted to live his life," Murphey says.

But a conversation with Murphey can easily turn to politics, morals or ethics.

His poetry, recited rather than published (though he's working on it), was partly inspired by Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg.

Refferring to Sandburg, he says, "Although he's very leftist, he cared about the land, the average guy, the people."

On the range

Murphey's love for wide-open spaces of the West, is poured into his work with the Paragon Foundation, a property rights organization that helps ranchers and American Indians embroiled in legal battles against the federal government.

New Mexico resident Laney, who has been battling the government over grazing rights, had his cattle auctioned and was charged for assaulting federal officers while on his horse. His Diamond Bar Ranch was closed.

"Here's a guy who is a veteran, who has no criminal record, they put him in a federal penitentiary," Murphey says. "They just confiscated his ranch, arrested him because he wouldn't cut his cattle numbers down. They wanted him out of there because the Gila Wilderness is something development is interested in.

"State, local and federal governments are taking land from the public using an environmental agenda, but really hiding behind another agenda. Agriculture doesn't stand a chance against development."

The organization that Murphey works with is also involved with a Shoshone Indian in Nevada whose grazing rights are being challenged and is still involved with Hage's battle.

"With Wayne Hage in Northern Nevada they tried to confiscate his land because they wanted water for Las Vegas," Murphey says. "But a lot of times when it's happening, it's not usually the environment. They take land using regulation."

Politics aside, Murphy still sings of wild horses, noted train robbers and finding love, escape or solitude among the backdrop of mountains.

He's been singing publicly since his teens. By the time "Wildfire" was released in 1975, Murphey had released his first album, "Geronimo's Cadillac," and had a resume that included his 1960s stint in a band with Michael Nesmith, a singer who went on to join the Monkees (a group that later recorded Murphey's song "What Am I Doing Hangin' Around?")

"Wildfire," a song that Murphey dreamed, is written about a ghost horse. It's a favorite among audiences and Murphey says it's something he always performs.

"Always," he says. "I always do a retrospective of my hits before I do cowboy music. But I can't do it all. I have 35 albums out. I always feel I'm leaving something out."

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