“America is the most Christmas-loving country in the history of the world.”
An audacious statement by Michael Martin Murphey, but one he can back up. After all, he’s been performing his Cowboy Christmas Show for 25 years, and the singer/songwriter is bringing it to the Rockbox Theater in Fredericksburg on December 1.
It is not idle boast. One thing I’ve learned from interviewing the country music legend three times is that he is an avid reader, student of literature, and history buff who loves to keep alive the story of the American west and culture.
“Americans have written some of the greatest secular and Christian songs about Christmas in history,” Murphey said. “We’ve written more Christmas songs than any other country. I can do a whole show singing nothing but U.S. Christmas carols.”
Murphey has learned the reason people love the holidays is about more than Rudolph, Santa, Jingle Bells, or all the other clichéd trappings of the season. It’s about family.
“The original Christmas story is about family,” he said, warming to a subject he obviously feels strongly about. “It’s about a family that goes on the road to report to a town to pay taxes, and ends up with the birth of the savior of the world. Whether you believe that story or not, it is significant.”
Murphey notes it is a “pastoral story,” rather than an urban story.
“The shepherds are first to get the news. Jesus is born in a manger. People today forget that a manger is what an animal eats out of in a barn. It was absolutely unthinkable in Jesus’ time for a king or a prophet to be born in a manger among farm animals in a barn. That’s what brought the story down to earth.”
That is the story Murphey recreates in his live Christmas show.
There is a resurgence of interest in the multiple Grammy nominee, now known for his celebration of the western cowboy lifestyle. Many may not realize he was at the forefront of the so-called outlaw movement that began simmering in Austin in the late 1960s.
“Honestly, we were like the ex-patriots of American literature who gathered in Paris in the 1920s–Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald,” he said. “Obviously we were not on that level, but we were expats from the big music centers of America. We were already published songwriters, trying to develop a very American voice.”
That voice became the foundation for a new style of music later labeled Americana.
“I was runaway from L.A. and places where I had to live to make it as a songwriter,” the Dallas native said. “It was not until I moved to Austin that I got my career as an artist off the ground.”
This was the late 1960s. By the early 1970s, he was joined by the likes of Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker.
“We began to realize we were gathering a movement,” he said. “While those guys never called themselves ‘outlaws,’ they saw themselves as renegades in the music business. Even Willie was not comfortable with the outlaw label. He saw himself as a good old boy country artist.”
Murphey’s latest project Austinology revisits the songs of that era. Among the artists joining him in the studio were Steve Earle on “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison on “Little Bird,” Amy Grant on “Wildfire,” Randy Rogers “Backslider’s Wine,” and Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, and Jerry Jeff Walker on “Alleys of Austin” and “Cosmic Cowboy.”
One opinion he is not shy about expressing is his feeling of alienation from current popular music.
“None of us are connected to the stuff playing now on country stations,” he said. “We are called Americana now. That’s fine with me.”
He is also fine with people coming out to his Cowboy Christmas, no matter how you feel about the holiday season, good or bad. He shared a sermon he heard one year.
“The priest said that on New Years day, you’ve all been through Christmas,” he said. “You’re glad that it’s over, that crazy cousin, your nutty dad. All families are broken. He pointed to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. You talk about a pretty broken family. A girl is pregnant that no one believes, most of people there at the birth are street people. So don’t be embarrassed about your messed up family. We are talking about a messed up family that triumphed. That is the original story.”
Merry Cowboy Christmas, y’all.
Michael Martin Murphey presents his Cowboy Christmas 25th Anniversary Christmas Tour at the Rockbox Theater in Fredericksburg, Texas, on Saturday, Dec. 1, 4PM & 8PM.
Tickets and information at www.rockboxtheater.com.