Michael Martin Murphey Brings Old West Spirit to Cowboy Christmas Ball

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Michael Martin Murphey Brings Old West Spirit to Cowboy Christmas Ball

BY M. J. VAN DEVENTER

For hundreds of area families, it just wouldn’t be the holidays without attending the annual Cowboy Christmas Ball, hosted by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. The 2013 event is Dec. 20, with festivities beginning at 7 p.m.

For the past 18 years, Michael Martin Murphey has been the star of this festive holiday event. What’s so special about the ball is the way it easily takes guests back to the frontier era, when families, friends and neighbors gathered to dine, dance and celebrate the season.

Period costumes and western attire are popular for this family-oriented event. And it’s not uncommon to see parents dancing with their children as Murphey strums his guitar and sings ballads, old and new, to usher in the yuletide season for western buffs. Murphey has even been known to set aside his guitar to dance with some of the guests himself.

Murphey and his Rio Grande Band make the evening a gala success. He designs his own holiday stage set and writes his own lively commentary that tells the history of early day Christmas dances on the frontier.

One Oklahoma City couple, Tony and Sharon Howard, have been attending the annual event for 14 years. They first met Murphey while cross country skiing in Red River, New Mexico, when their granddaughter was three. When they heard about the first ball in 1994, they were looking for an unusual holiday event and made reservations.

Tony and Sharon also enjoy the opportunity to see Murphey every year at the ball.

As a 68-year-old western entertainer, Murphey has seen almost seven decades of Christmas events. As a youngster, he started riding horses on his grandfather’s and uncle’s ranches. He recalls sleeping on his grandfather’s porch under the stars, listening to his western stories and cowboy songs. He learned about cowboy life as a child and those experiences made a lasting impression on him.

There was much in Murphey’s youth that contributes to his appeal today as one of the West’s most sought after performers. By the time he was in junior high school in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, he was performing as an amateur. By 17, he was a professional, playing western songs around a Texas ranch campfire. By the early 1960s, he was performing country, folk and rock music at clubs around Dallas.

The year 1967 was pivotal for Murphey. An old Texas friend, Michael Nesmith, was part of the popular television musical group, The Monkees. He asked Murphey to write a song for their next album and Murphey composed What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round?

By 1968, he signed a contract with the Screen Gems Company, the publishing arm of Columbia Pictures, and some of his songs were recorded by Flatt and Scruggs, Bobbie Gentry and Kenny Rogers. By the early 1970s, Murphey tired of the outlaw cowboy music genre. He began moving toward a much more ambitious musical tapestry.

In 1990, Murphey created an album, Cowboy Songs, which inspired Warner Bros. Records to spin off a new “Warner Western” label. A Chicago Tribune reviewer wrote, “This is not only one of the finest albums of the year but also one of the finest of the last decade. Its 22 riveting cuts represent a labor of not only love but also scholarship. It raises a cult musical genre to the level of mainstream art.” The record achieved Gold Label status, the first western album to do so since Marty Robbins’ No. 1 Cowboy in 1980.

One year later, Murphey came back with a sequel: Cowboy Christmas: Cowboy Songs II.

Murphey continues to be praised on stages across the country for his contributions to the western music genre. The National Cowboy Museum honored him with its highest accolade – the prestigious Wrangler Award for his western music achievements.

He maintains homes in Colorado and Wisconsin. When he’s not performing, his favorite place to relax is his private fishing lake in Linden, Texas, not far from where his pioneer ancestors came to Texas in 1858.

For those attending the ball, Murphey’s performance will share, not only his love for Christmas, but the western way of life he cherishes. Reservations are required for the dinner and dance. Santa will make a surprise visit sometime following the evening’s buffet dinner. Call (405) 478-2250, Ext. 219, to make a reservation.

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