Just remember the Red River Valley, and the cowboy that's loved you so true
Updated: May 5, 2021
Michael Martin Murphey's song, Wildfire, was the 39th most popular song in Australia in 1975. According to John O'Grady's alter-ego Nino Cullota, Australians are a weird mob, which, I'm sure, extends to our musical tastes. A quick look at those top 100 songs shows that an Australian's idea of popular music extended from country to punk, with a mish-mash of everything in between, and we loved it. But some songs endure, and Michael Martin Murphey's song, Wildfire has not only endured, but has been recently been made into a movie. At age 74, Michael Martin Murphey still performs, still writes music, and is now awaiting the release of the Wildfire movie.
It is no accident that I am in Red River tonight, Saturday, 27th July, 2019. I want to see Michael Martin Murphey live, and since it is unlikely that he will perform in Australia, I have had to stalk him, chase him, and finally had to rearrange my itinerary to include one of his concerts. It is being held at the 3M Amphitheatre in Red River, New Mexico.
I arrive in Red River in mid-afternoon; a sleepy, summer holiday fishing, hiking, and horse-riding village, located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The township of Red River had its humble beginnings in the 19th century as a miner's camp, when gold, silver, and copper were discovered. Mining hit its peak in 1897, and by 1905, the population had dwindled significantly. However, unlike many boom-to-bust towns, Red River survived due to its location and its popularity as a trout-fishing paradise. Today, in Winter, Red River is a thriving ski resort, and there are many chalet-style hotels dotted along the main street.
My hotel is easy to find, and I waste no time checking in then walking along the main street to check out the town. It is nearing the end of the main holiday season, and this weekend is quiet; not that many tourists appear to be in town. This ski town is quaint, and not at all like the big resorts like Aspen or Vail, but it has a soul, a sense of history and fun, as displayed on the sign which advertises the Saturday night gunfight. I'm half-sorry I'm going to miss the fun!
The weather has been good to me, and the day is still warm. My hotel room is rustic, to say the least; the walls are lined in knotty pinewood. I fling open the double-sliding doors that lead to a small balcony and sniff the piney fragrance of the nearby hills. I'm not rewarded with any such thing. My nostrils are filled with the pungent odour of used cooking oil. Below me is a huge extrusion fan, which is connected to the kitchen of the famous Texas Reds Steakhouse'. I close the door and silently curse my bad luck for managing to secure a room on this side of the hotel. But I'm not here to sit on the balcony, sipping margaritas. I'm here to attend a concert.
By now, the sky is looking quite leaden, and despite the warmth in the air, I've been warned that it may become chilly during the evening. I prepare by packing a coat and umbrella into my backpack.
Behind the hotel there is a road, which quickly changes from asphalt to a recently-graded unsealed road. The receptionist at the hotel had told me to continue driving until I reach the end of the road, so I do. The one-and-a-half lane road has been recently graded and it cuts through the mountains behind the town. Along the sides are steep berms, where the excess soil has piled. I am acutely aware of the steep drop on the side I'm driving on, and am secretly relieved that I when I return later, in the dark, I shall be on the mountain side of the road. The road ends in a carpark. I now understand why I was told to keep driving until I reach the end of the road. It is impossible to get lost. Parking attendants greet me and point me to a parking spot.
The sky is looking ominous as I approach the ticket booth. As well as the smell of rain in the air, I detect the smell of barbequed meat. I suddenly feel hungry as I remember that I haven't eaten since that awful breakfast burger at Sonic in Taos this morning. Thank goodness the price of my ticket tonight includes a BBQ dinner.
As I walk down to the 3M amphitheatre, I am relieved to see that a marquee has been erected adjacent to the outdoor venue, and the stage, seats and the BBQ are set up within. I'm probably the only person here tonight who doesn't have a partner or is part of a larger group, so I take some time to find the best seat I can. I do see a few spare seats in the front row and place my bag on the best of them, but I am concerned that these are reserved seats. So, I do the polite thing and ask the nice young couple, one of whom is tuning his guitar, whether the seats are reserved.
'You can have this seat when I get up to play on stage,' says the gentleman. I'm happy with that, so I turn to the BBQ to get something to eat.
Before long, I hear the sounds of the guitar from the stage, and I slip into the now-vacant seat in the centre of the row. At the end of the first song, I turn to the lady next to me and thank her for allowing me to sit there. She introduces herself. Her name is Francie. A few minutes later, I realise that the guitarist I have just shafted from his seat is actually Ryan Murphey, the son of Michael Martin, and Francie is his wife. I already feel part of the family!
As Ryan finishes his set, he introduces his brother, Brennan, who plays the Celtic harp. Together they play O'Carolan's Welcome, a piece of music written by blind Irish harpist, Thurlough O'Carolan (1670-1738). I have listened to many adaptations of O'Carolan's work and have marvelled at the longevity of the tunes. Tonight's concert is nearing the end of Michael Martin Murphey's summer concert series in Red River, and I realise that this night's concert is very special for all; performers and audience alike. Martin's sons, talented musicians in their own right, are performing with him tonight. Ryan introduces his father, and this is the reason I am sitting here in a New Mexico mountain bush setting to see him perform live. The rain starts to fall, heavily and I'm glad that someone had the foresight to hold tonight's concert under cover. I do wonder whether the road is going to be flooded - that is a concern!
Throughout his performance, Michael tells stories about his life, his music and those who have influenced him. The threads that consistently bind the songs together include his love of his family, the land, and of the cowboy. He wants to preserve the cowboy's history and is doing so, considers himself a singer of cowboy songs. They are not all 'singing around the campfire' style songs either. His song, Geronimo's Cadillac, written in 1972 is a song that illustrates the irony of the gift of a cadillac to Geronimo, although at the time, he was in jail. Murphey sang his hits, including What's Forever For, Cosmic Cowboy, as well as songs by others, such as Jerry Jeff Walker's LA Freeway. The night ended with Brennan returning to the stage with his Celtic harp, playing the introduction to Martin's best-known song, Wildfire.
This wonderful place in the mountains belongs to Murphey. This is his own small amphitheatre, in the bush, right away from civilisation. His chuckwagon show includes dinner, cowboy style. It is alcohol-free and family friendly. For those hours away from phones, which incidentally don't work here, traffic, and chaotic life, Murphey has recreated the old west. Along with the songs, he talks about his life, the history of the land and of its people, and it is easy to understand why he loves to perform. He wants to use the time to educate people about the fragility of the land and it's native people. He urges people to visit the Taos Pueblo, to take the time to talk to the residents, to eat in their cafes and to buy their hand-crafted goods.
I stand in line to buy CDs. The recently released Austinology - Alleys of Austin, a re-recording of many of Murphey's hits with other artists. I chat to Ryan and to Brennan, then I meet the man himself. He tells me he recorded John Williamson's Campfire on the Road. Although the words may be Australian, it is somehow has universal appeal when sung by Murphey.
I ask someone to take a photo of us.
Saying goodbye to Francie, who is an absolute delight, I return to the car and start the trek along the unsealed, and hopefully still intact, road back to town. I'm glad I waited around until most people had left the site, because I travelled back at about 20 kilometres an hour, checking carefully for flash-flooding or road damage and for deer and other nocturnal wildlife. I do not want to meet a bear tonight.
But the road is perfect. The heavy rain has left a few puddles, but nothing to worry about.
I don't see any deer and I don't see a bear.
TITLE QUOTE: Frank Mills, from the song, Red River Valley
ACCOMMODATION: The Lodge at Red River, 400 E Main St, Red River, NM