If you love Michael Martin Murphey's 'Wildfire,' this one's for you
Earlier this week we published an extensive interview with Michael Martin Murphey, whose annual "Cowboy Christmas" show pulls into the Paramount Theatere tonight (Friday, December 21). We talked at length with him about "Austinology," his new album that focuses on the music Murphey made and absorbed from his peers during his integral early-1970s years in Austin.
But we left out an extended conversation about his most famous song, "Wildfire" — primarily because he wrote it before arriving in Austin, and it didn't become a major pop hit until just after he'd left. Written in California in the late 1960s with Larry Cansler, an accomplished arranger and composer who shared Texas roots with Murphey, "Wildfire" is the one song Murphey will always be asked to play wherever he goes. He recorded it again for “Austinology,” an unusual version that changes keys and features guest vocalist Amy Grant.
Corresponding via online message this week, Cansler, who now lives in Arizona, sent along his account of how the song came to be. "We wrote the song at my house in Sherman Oaks, California, during a period when we were writing songs around the clock. I'd sit at the piano and sketch out a melody or a line, or he'd hand me a lyric idea and I'd put a melody to it."
Murphey's memory differs slightly; he recalls coming up with an initial draft in the middle of the night one night. In our interview, he offered quite a bit of insight into the long and winding road that led to “Wildfire," a path that included work on a fascinating Kenny Rogers & the First Edition concept album that has largely been forgotten.
“I wrote it in 1968, right before I moved (back to Texas). I had written (with Cansler) a whole album called ‘The Ballad of Calico,’ which was 22 songs about a ghost town in California. I was living up in the mountains, and right down the hill was a ghost town called Calico. I would go down there on the desert and hang out at that place. For some reason, I had a mystical connection with that town. I’ve always had a mystical connection with the story of the Old West. It’s just something that’s always fascinated me. That is our ‘Iliad,’ that’s our ‘Odyssey,’ if we’re Americans.
“In (Calico), I saw the story of humanity: I saw the story of boom and bust, and human beings are a boom-and-bust mentality creature. So I kind of wanted to use that as an example of how I viewed the human race. That was something I couldn’t sell to Nashville. So I sold it to Kenny Rogers, who was also in California at that time, and he did the whole album. It was Kenny Rogers’ least successful album of his whole career!
“So I was working on that project, but every time I would focus down, trying to work on a certain kind of a project, I would always write other stuff. And if you didn’t just go ahead and write it, then it would bother you the whole time you were trying to work on the other thing.
"Larry and I had been working night and day to try to get this Calico thing completed. He was a graduate of North Texas, and he had been in the One O’Clock Lab Band in North Texas. He had arranged orchestral stuff and string arrangements for people like Kenny Rogers, but he never thought he would get involved in songwriting that much, because he didn’t really write lyrics. So we were a good team, in that I was all about the lyrics and he was all about the music.
"Not that he never suggested a lyric, or that I never suggested music. But when 'Wildfire' got published in sheet music, it said, 'Words by Michael Murphey and music by Larry Cansler.' The truth is, in any collaboration, the music guy might say, 'You know, you might fit that rhythm of that line a little bit better into this melody.' And so you might change a couple of words here, to fit the rhythm of the melody.
“I had been produced by Bob Johnston, and Bob was 100 percent committed to creative freedom for his artists. If you wanted to ask him for advice, he would give it. But he would never give it unless you asked for it. I had asked for three years to do ‘Wildfire,’ and he said, ‘I just don’t think that’s appropriate, Murph. It’s too Jimmy Webb, it’s too California, it’s too Glen Campbell. I think you need to be edgier.’ My sister-in-law had been on my case for years to put it on an album.
“My third album had not done well, and it looked like my career was about over. So I figured, if I’m going to go down in flames, I’m going to do songs for all the people who begged me to do certain songs, and I’m going to put them on the album. And so I put ‘Wildfire’ on there (1975’s “Blue Sky — Night Thunder”), and it became my biggest hit. Bob was the only guy in the music business who ever said, ‘You know what? I was 100 percent wrong!’”
A postscript, in regard to the song "Alleys of Austin," which Murphey discussed at length in our article earlier this week. Murphey had recalled writing it in the early 1970s at a Jewish delicatessen in Austin; I suggested Katz's, and he concurred. Neither of us realized or remembered that Katz's was not yet open at that time. But Herb Steiner, who played pedal steel guitar with Murphey in those early Austin years, did. He wrote us with the following memory of how "Alleys of Austin" came to Murphey:
"He was sitting in a little joint called The Sandwich Shop, which was on Sixth Street between Colorado and Lavaca. The band was next door at a work-in-progress studio owned by Jay Podolnick and Steve Shields. We were working on the Jerry Jeff Walker album that had "L.A. Freeway," and Murphey was sitting in the restaurant writing the song. I walked in and he asked me to listen to the tune, and I told him it was great.
"I remember going outside of the studio on Friday afternoon at 6 p.m. Not a car on the street, not a car parked anywhere; the downtown was totally shut down. And I had just come from L.A. where 6 p.m. on Friday was a madhouse. The Sandwich Shop was on the north side of the street, and across the street was a restaurant named Beans. Further down the street was the Hoffbrau and Hut's, across from McMorris Ford. That was it."