Michael Martin Murphey: Cowboys & Bluegrass
When last we left Texas singer-songwriter and rancher Michael Martin Murphey, he was explaining how he went against the country-music grain of the late '80s by recording the improbably successful album of traditional trail songs and ballads, Cowboy Songs. Here he tells us how he continued exploring cowboy music's connection with other kinds of American folk music in the latest extension of his Cowboy Songs project, Buckaroo Blue Grass, which is up to three volumes now.
Rocks Off: On the surface, anyway, it seems like bluegrass and cowboy music would be on the opposite ends of the country-and-western spectrum.
Michael Martin Murphey: You know, you're 100 percent correct on modern music, if you look at what's happening in country music now. But if you go to the 19th century, you'll find that the melodies have a common root. Most of the Westerners were people who moved west, and where did they come from? They came from Appalachia, they came from the South.
A tremendous number of black slaves, after they were released after the Civil War, left the South in disgust because nobody gave them any capital. They had nothing. They finally passed an act that gave them 40 acres and a mule, but they had no capital.
So what are you going to do to survive if you can't buy seed and can't buy anything to farm with, but you've got a government mule and 40 acres? Well, what a lot of them did was they sold the 40 acres and got on the mule and went to Texas and became cowboys.
They knew how to do it, and they were great at it. It created kind of a more egalitarian workplace in Texas than in the other places that had been in the Confederacy, and the cowboys who were a different color were accepted because they could do the work and they were hated.
Their music, combined with the Celtic music and the German music of the people who migrated here...Texas has more Irish surnames than any other single ethnic group, and Germans.
[They] came here about the same time, and they were the lowest immigrants on the totem pole everyplace else, but like the blacks that came out of the South, they weren't recognized for the work they could do, and so the music that I sing, that is the old-time cowboy music, comes from Appalachia, Scots-Irish roots, black roots and Hispanic roots.
It's a combination of those three things. Some people consider it a witch's brew [laughs]. Other people say, "Man, you combine those kinds of music and you've got nothing except something that makes you want to cover your ears up."
And that's really the way it was until Lomax collected that collection, and Roosevelt wrote an introduction. It's really interesting what he says in the introduction. He says, "The music of the cowboys is something that I prefer over the songs of the ill-smelling vaudeville houses of our day."
He said these songs, they have roots, what makes them great is that basically there's a common experience of real life in them. But those melodies, and the music, comes from fiddle music that really derives from Ireland and Scotland, and got settled in Appalachia. And that's the same root as bluegrass.