Controversial opinion: A lot of well-intentioned fools over the past several decades have dedicated their musical careers to the cause of saving an artificial genre borne out of a forced cross-breeding of western, hillbilly, and whatever-was-popular-that-year styles, initially promoted to sell insurance to farmers and eventually perverted to sell a culture that never existed to cityfolk and suburbanites. Even stuff I’m supposed to like (BR-549, Dwight Yoakam) strikes me as amped-up museum piece, about as lasting and meaningful as a Cherry Poppin’ Daddies in-store.
If there’s anything to be taken away from all those Dylan biopics and documentaries, it’s that folk music isn’t folk music if it isn’t current and topically relevant to its vessel. A guy who understands this, as well as the difference between country and western, is Michael Murphey, whose 1971 masterpiece of a debut, Geronimo’s Cadillac, I purchased from The Groove for a mere buck.
Murphey’s first musical calling card was “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Around,” a hit for The Monkees in 1967. Some three years prior, he’d played in the Trinity River Boys with fellow Texan/west coast transplant Mike Nesmith. Like The Nez, Murphey was a cowboy romantic and a poet. But where Nesmith’s post-Monkees work with The First National Band has more anthropology than heart, the Murphey of Geronimo’s Cadillac, at least, employs western folk, post-hippie Austin rock, and secular gospel to create resonant, original folk songs with vivid imagination.
The Monkees hit is represented on the second side as a loose, joyful romp–Michael sings it like a guy who just got a big check, and I feel kinda happy for him. A good friend compares Murphey’s raspy, often wispy tenor to that of Blind Melon frontman/stage pisser/Axl Rose BFF/dead guy Shannon Hoon; I’m more inclined to say Loudon Wainwright III for its unromantic, intellectual twang, but that might owe more to my knowing who the hell Loudon Wainwright III is.
It’s hard to pick favorites, but “Calico Silver” stuck out on first listen. It apparently stuck out for Kenny Rogers, who, in the pre-hits/post Edition portion of his career, aimed to record an entire album of Murphey-penned originals about the fictitious ghost town of Calico, of which this is presumably the centerpiece. It never happened, and eventually, Rogers starred in The Six-Pack.
Much of the album was recorded right here in Nashville, produced by Bob Johnston in a documentary style reminiscent of the Dylan records he’d recorded in the five years preceding its release.
Ragged, smart, and beautiful, Geronimo’s Cadillac was a hit in the Austin area, but not many other places. Ultimately, Murphey had his biggest success with 1975’s “Wildfire,” a soft rock production about a ghost horse that saves people. It’s good, but it’s no this, and neither is 1978’s lifeless, discofied Lone Wolf, which I also picked up at The Groove. Poor guy.
There’s a lot to listen for in Michael Murphey (who started going by Michael Martin Murphey in 1979 to avoid confusion with the guy who plays Issac’s adulterous friend, Yale, in Woody Allen‘s Manhattan). Too much, I suspect, for the music industry and what became of it as Murphey’s career progressed. Nonetheless, I think I’ve just begun to scrape the surface of this man’s catalog–I’ve heard the title track to Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir, and it’s wonderful. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, find Geronimo’s Cadillac and spin the hell out of it. It doesn’t exist on the internet, legally or otherwise. Visit a record store.