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KEARNEY – Singer-songwriter Michael Martin Murphey credits the girls’ love of horses with keeping the 1975 hit ‘Wildfire’ alive.
“Throughout my career, young women have come up to me and said, ‘I love my horse and I called him ‘Wildfire’ and I cry every time I hear that song’” , Murphy said in an interview from his home in Texas. . “I think that kept that song alive. It’s not really a love story; it is not about a rupture between lovers. It’s something more than that, it’s something mystical that I can’t explain.
Set on the prairie, the ballad tells the story of a homesteader who evokes the fate of a young Nebraska woman who perishes in a blizzard while searching for her pony, Wildfire. The storyteller finds himself in a similar situation.
Murphey will perform selections from his more than 35 music albums during a 7 p.m. performance Friday at the Merryman Performing Arts Center. Tickets for the show, presented by the Kearney Cosmos, are $35. Proceeds will help fund the group’s backpacking program for area schools.
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Murphey began his musical career in the mid-1960s in Los Angeles. A friend of his, Michael Nesmith, asked the songwriter to contribute to an album called “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ldt”. Nesmith, a member of the television group The Monkees, helped launch Murphey’s career as a songwriter which continued for 50 years. His other hits include “Carolina in the Pines”, “What’s Forever For”, “A Long Line of Love” and “Geronimo’s Cadillac”.
For a song like “Wildfire”, Murphey used a combination of two writing styles.
“The two main styles I deal with are abstract expressionist writing and direct, linear writing that tells a story,” he said. “Sometimes I combined them. And that’s what “Wildfire” is. It tells a story, but at the end of the story we don’t necessarily know what it means. There are many abstract images.
The opening lines of “Wildfire” tell a linear story.
“She descends from Yellow Mountain/On dark flat ground she rides; On a pony she named Wildfire / With a whirlwind by her side, On a cold Nebraska night.
“We don’t know why she’s out there riding in the middle of winter,” Murphey said. “The next line is, ‘They say she died one winter when there was a killing frost.’ So it’s immediately clear that this woman riding across the prairie is a ghost, and the song never explains why she’s a ghost.
Murphey grew up riding horses and listening to stories on the ranches of his grandfather and uncles. He studied Greek at the University of North Texas, then moved to California to study medieval literature. While in California, he befriended an array of folk and country musicians.
In the mid-1970s, Murphey found success with “Geronimo’s Cadillac” in 1972, then “Wildfire” three years later.
Decades later, Murphey, 77, performs in a trio with guitarist Carin Mari and bassist Gary Roller.
“We’re a really tight group,” he said.
Murphey classifies much of what’s on the radio these days as “party music.”
“I don’t reject party music,” he said. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with throwing a party. There’s nothing wrong with getting up there and playing the kind of music that people are going to dance to. But if you can combine the music people want to dance to with a good story and a well-written song, that song will last a lot longer.
Kearney Cosmos member Steve Lind noted that proceeds from the show will go towards purchasing supplies for area school children.
“It’s our main fundraiser,” he said of the concert featuring Murphey. “We help fund the Backpack program. We give money to schools and they use the money to buy clothes, shoes and food. It’s quite simple. Teachers know what children need. What I like is that there is no administrative paperwork. We have invested a few thousand dollars in this program.
Murphey said he enjoys contributing to philanthropic groups like the Kearney Cosmos.
“It’s a great cause,” he said. “I love it when communities come together and do this stuff instead of waiting for the government to send them money – or get a grant. One of the most dreaded words in the arts is ‘ grants.” When a community does something like this and uses music to raise funds, it’s an honor to be a part of it.