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Still riding wildfire 

Michael Martin Murphey on cowboys, bluegrass and GMOs

Listen to the high-lonesome chorus of "Wildfire" — Michael Martin Murphey's tale of a young girl's ghost reuniting with the wild mare she lost in a Nebraska blizzard — and it won't take long for the song to permanently sink its hooves in your brain.

Like his other signature song "Carolina in the Pines," Murphey's 1975 hit has been covered by too many artists to count.

And after nearly three dozen albums, including 2009's Grammy-nominated Buckaroo Blue Grass, the 69-year-old Dallas native shows no signs of slowing down.

When he's not on the road playing more than 100 dates a year, Murphey spends four days a week tending his Southern Colorado ranch, and the remaining three at his open-air amphitheater, the Cowboy Palace, in Red River, New Mexico.

In the following interview, Murphey discusses his life-long love for bluegrass, the ongoing controversy over GMOs, and the origins of the song that launched his career.

Indy: I understand that some of the lyrics for "Wildfire" came to you in a dream, and I'm wondering what the dream was about. I'm sure there was a horse involved, but what else?

Murphey: Actually, the whole song and all the imagery came to me in a dream. I was working with my buddy and co-writer Larry Cansler on a 22-song project for Kenny Rogers, and I would drive down from Redwood, which is up in the mountains of California, and we'd write around the clock. His wife was a nurse who got up at 5 in the morning, and she came downstairs when I'd just woken from the dream and was writing everything down. She said, "What are you doing up so late?" And I said, "Wake up Larry, you gotta get him to come down here." So he did, and we finished the song right there.

You've gotten heavily into bluegrass in recent years. Has that always been part of your life and music?

I was writing and recording bluegrass songs on my very first albums. But my first pure bluegrass album was a cowboy's take on bluegrass, which is why I called it Buckaroo Blue Grass. And my current album, Red River Drifter, is done with a traditional acoustic bluegrass setup — which is typically mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass — with drums added to it. Drums are an acoustic instrument, too, by the way.

What specific bluegrass artists do you feel are closest to you musically? Do artists like Ralph Stanley or Bill Monroe come into your mind when you're writing a bluegrass song?

Well, I think there's a lot of Stanley Brothers influence on a song like "Lost River." And if you do a song like "Carolina in the Pines," a straight bluegrass version of it, that also sounds a lot like them. But there are others, too, like Chubby Wise, Mack Wiseman, the Harper Brothers. I fell in love with the banjo the first time I heard Earl Scruggs play it, and I was actually in the Earl Scruggs Revue with him and his boys for a while.

As a rancher and a farmer, I'm sure you were following the GMO-labeling initiative pretty closely. One thing I thought was interesting about that is how small farmers and Monsanto were taking the same stance against it, even though they typically don't have the same interests. What's your take on all that?

I got behind the initiative — I approved of it — but to the extent that it hurts farmers and ranchers, we have to think about that. The issue with GMOs, to me, is that we have to go back to Washington, D.C., and say, listen, no one should be able to patent a life form. The reason they do genetically modified organisms is so they can develop a strain that they can patent. And I'm sorry, but patenting a life form is wrong.

I saw Merle Haggard a few years ago at the state fair here, and he played nearly a two-hour set with an oxygen mask on the whole time. I know he's got a lot of years on you, but do you still want to be doing that when you're his age?

Well, you know, I think Salvador Dali and Picasso proved that once an artist, always an artist. You don't stop being an artist just because you turn 65. And the artist inside you doesn't have an age. You know, art is timeless.

So do I want to be like Merle? Well, I never smoked that much. I never drank that much. But do I want to be like him and keep on going? Sure, I think every artist does. If you really enjoy what you do and it's your calling, you want to keep on going for a lifetime. Why not? What else would I do?

  • Michael Martin Murphey on cowboys, bluegrass and GMOs

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