|If you listen to country music radio today, you will hear lots of songs about life in the country. Many are nostalgic about how great it was growing up on a farm or in a small town, while others sing about life in rural America today. Some of these come close to the way it was or is, while others are nothing but romantic, sentimental mush.
Some of the songs are written and sung by people who really understand country life, while others are cranked out by the Nashville music business designed to sell to an urbanized country music audience. There are a few folks, however, that truly have a passion for rural America and a voice to sing about it.
Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp get lots of attention for their FarmAid event. In reality, most of the people involved in that project have little connection with farming, and the funds raised have a decidedly political agenda. Recently, I had the chance to visit with a country music artist who has redirected his career to focus on rural issues and rural people. He sings about the real country life and country values, and is a spokesman for the rights of farmers and ranchers.
Michael Martin Murphey topped the popular music charts in the early 1980s with his hit “Wildfire,” but 10 years ago he changed directions.
“I decided to stop singing about dysfunctional relationships in the city and start singing about real things in the country,” he told me.
His album “Cowboy Songs” went gold, and he has been singing about the land ever since. “When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a singing cowboy and now I am one,” he mused. He travels the nation singing cowboy songs while managing several herds of cattle.
Unlike many celebrities who buy up big spreads of land and then never visit them, Murphey manages his ranch on a for-profit basis. “I do not subsidize my cattle business with my music business,” Murphey said.
He told me he pays the same local rate for land, and when he buys cattle it is on a line of credit.
His songs are a mix of classic western ballads and his own songs about the land and the people who work it. They reflect not the romantic idealism of country pop songs, but the reality of hard work, family, and faith that are part of the lives of everyday rural people. He has become involved in the “America’s Heartland” television program now being syndicated on PBS stations nationwide. One of his songs is being used as the theme music for the program because it stresses the importance of the land and its people.
Murphey has also become an outspoken advocate for farmers’ land rights. He speaks strongly against eminent domain, which allows the government to take land because they think they can manage it better or put it to better use. In our conversation he was highly critical of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and their management of public parks and lands. He feels farmers and ranchers can do a much better job of taking care of the land.
As you would expect, Murphey is very popular with rural people but is gaining an increasingly large city audience, including “folks who live on the computer think the quilt Grandma made is a work of art, and people who spend their days on the freeway long for a drive in the country,” he said.
His music and his message are telling the true story of rural America to people who have never been there.
You won’t hear Michael Martin Murphey music on your country music station, he is too country for most computerized, homogenized, and urbanized formats. If you look hard, however, you might find his CDs in the back of your local music store. Pick one up and listen to some real country about the real country.
This Views and Opinions piece was published in the November 23, 2005 issue of Farm World.