The old saying goes, when you play a country song backwards you get BACK your pick-up truck, your job, your dog and your girlfriend. Which tells us how tediously self-pitying country songs can be when they are played forward. But a precaution is in order: Never equate maudlin country with manly cowboy songs.
Cowboys don't do self-pity, pardner.
Western songs can be sentimental, but they tell their stories stoically: the love of a land, the remoteness of a mountain, determination on a dusty trail, loyalty toward a horse, the strength of prairie women. They evoke mythic tales of round-ups and rustlers and the legends of robbers and renegades. They look life straight in the eye and say:
"I'll take it as is, come what may."
Pioneers, cattlemen, ranchers, gamblers, painted ladies and gunslingers all shared their songs with each other. They kept memories alive for family, friends and fans, bequeathing to posterity not just the history but also the feel of the Old West. That spirit lives on today in Western songs that retain a love of the land and its restless life, while keeping alive the promise of ever expanding horizons.
Melody. Spurs. Memory. Comes to the Autry National Center
A week ago Monday evening, a lucky congregation of music lovers, history buffs and Western wannabes gathered in the grand lower foyer of the Autry National Center's museum building at Griffith Park for an evening of music, poetry, storytelling and film, headlined by popular singer/songwriter Michael Martin Murphey. Rachel Worby, artistic director of the event's producer, MUSE/IQUE, narrated the evening's musical encounters.
Now in the Western Music Hall of Fame, Murphey is a gifted composer and wordsmith with a pointed, twangy tenor that sings in tune even when his maverick guitar occasionally wanders off the trail. He opened and closed the evening with sing-alongs, kicking off the event with the unofficial anthem of the American West (and official song of Kansas) Home on the Range.
At home on any range (Murphey owns ranches in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Texas) he shared ranch lore in anecdote and song for the rest of the evening. (As a sign of the worldwide popularity of Home on the Range, this writer was once asked to come unprepared onto a stage in Japan and sing it for a Japanese audience just so they could hear it in "American.")
Five of Murphey's own songs followed: his homage to the wide-open spaces, "Close to the Land" (aka "America's Heartland"), the humorous ode to cowpokes, "Cowboy Logic" ("If it's a fence, mend it, if it's a dollar bill, spend it"), an idealized mountain lover ("far above the timberland") in "Carolina in the Pines", and a paean to his "Old Horse", as much a lament for the obsolescence of the cowboy as a retirement farewell to his horse. He ended his own song set with his biggest hit, "Wildfire." ("She rides on a pony she named Wildfire, with a whirlwind by her side"). With his songs covered by every Western singer worth his salt, Murphey's thrusting tempi and epic deliveries on this eve confirmed his secure place as America's bardic cowboy.
Grammy-winning bluegrass fiddler Richard Green played his own finely-filigreed "Amazing Graces", consisting of variations on the old hymn (with no sign of bleating bagpipes!), performing it on his 13-string violin d'amore, an instrument from the Renaissance that leaves gentle stringy after-sounds, prominently on the fifth degree of the scale.
Both Green and Murphey quietly accompanied a few of the readings to follow, which included poems and stories, most of them by a transplanted English poet named Philip Daughtry. English-born he may be but early on he acculturated to the American West. Daughtry's expressive and insightful works are the genuine article and elevated the evening's literary quality several steps up the Rockies.
Golden Globe Winner Wendie Malick read an excerpt from Daughtry's story, The Centaur's Son, with Murphey's guitar quietly strumming. Daughtry read his own poem, Mounting the Horse, with a wistful obbligato by Greene. ("Take my smell, beast with lips soft as the interior of flowers... Inside you, I hear a river's tumult, an uncertainty I approach, hearing my heart beat its shaman's drum in a far country.") Actor Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) then spun the Hopi animistic tale of How the Sun Found the Sky.
In the course of the evening, documentary filmmaker Ginger Kathrens's film and photo clips of wild horses were streamed on a large screen at the left corner of the impromptu stage area. Author of the book Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies, the Emmy award-winner captured the West's most graceful animal in tableaux of dramatic action.
Murphey offered for sale a guitar on which he had inscribed the words to Wildfire, the proceeds to benefit his own Fiona Rose Murphey Foundation and some residential foster care facilities sponsored by the evening's presenter, MUSE/IQUE. It was purchased for $6,000 in an on-the-spot auction.
The evening closed with another sing-along, of the poignant Happy Trails written by Dale Evans shortly after the early death of her daughter. Baby boomers still hear the voices of Dale and Roy Rogers ringing in their ears from the TV days of their youths, even if few of them ever knew what instigated this elegiac song. With its tragic back-story, the bittersweet Happy Trails smiles through its tears and never gives in to self-pity. It is the very essence of the cowboy song, where seldom are heard discouraging words.
The Old West has become the New West, but for a few moments last Monday evening, Michael Martin Murphey, Philip Daughtry and the evening's artists at the Autry National Center helped us remember how and why we all ended up here.
Melody. Spurs. Memory.
Michael Martin Murphey and Friends presented by Rachel Worby's MUSE/IQUE
Autry National Center in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, California
Monday, April 9, 2012, 7:30pm
Photo credits: First photo (montage of Western stars at the Autry) and third photo (Murphey with his guitar) are by Rodney Punt. Middle photo (the assembled at the grand lower foyer) is by Melissa Kobe, used by permission of the photographer who can be contacted at www.mkobephotography.com
About the Autry National Center
The Autry National Center, founded by legendary recording and cowboy movie star Gene Autry, has become in the last decade a major force in the history of the American West. Formed in 2003 by the merger of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian and the Women of the West Museum, the Autry National Center is an intercultural history center dedicated to exploring and sharing the stories, experiences, and perceptions of the diverse peoples of the American West.
Located in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, the largest urban park in the nation, the Autry's collection of over 500,000 pieces of art and artifacts now includes the collection of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, one of the largest and most significant in the United States. The Autry Institute includes two research libraries: the Braun Research Library and the Autry Library. Exhibitions, public programs, K-12 educational services, and publications are designed to examine critical issues of society, offering insights into solutions and the contemporary human condition through the Western historical experience.
See here for personal background on Rodney Punt's heritage of Western-warbling maternal ancestors. Punt can be contacted at Rodney@artspacifica.net.