Campfire Songs & Horse Stories



On a dead-end street on the east side of downtown Colorado Springs, a modest clapboard building is nestled against the railroad tracks. Most passersby wouldn’t notice this nondescript structure, built in 1887 as a warehouse for the Santa Fe Railroad. But local cowboy music fans know its significance.

Since 1996, the building has housed Scott O’Malley and Associates and Western Jubilee Recording Co., the agency and record company that represents Western entertainers, such as Cowboy Celtic, Don Edwards, Waddie Mitchell, Rich O’Brien, Sons & Brothers and Sons of the San Joaquin. Whenever a cowboy act rolls into town, whether it’s for a visit or to record a new album, it’s likely O’Malley will book them for a “secret” show at the recording company. Only those on the exclusive mailing list receive postcards about the concerts, and tickets sell as fast as biscuits are eaten around a chuckwagon.

The sound booth and concert hall is a big warehouse room that’s been converted into a small, old-time theater. Corrugated tin lines some of the walls and exposed insulation blankets the ceiling. One hundred or so old theater seats and church pews sit in view of a small stage covered in mismatched Persian-looking rugs and stand-up microphones. A variety of vintage instruments and a collection of quirky Western memorabilia decorate every inch of wall space. Colorful crazy quilts serve as the stage backdrop and enhance the acoustics.

I attended my first concert at “the Warehouse” in 2002 upon recommendation from my co-workers at Western Horseman, and have since seen each of the entertainers mentioned above, plus John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ian Tyson and most recently Michael Martin Murphey.

Murphey sings with the passion that has captivated audiences for five decades.

Murphey sings with the passion that has captivated audiences for five decades.

Murphey’s performance was being recorded for a live album tentatively called Lone Cowboy II. Cloaked in a frock coat over a vest and red shirt, and wearing a tasteful tan cowboy hat edged in chocolate brown and a gold wild rag neatly tied in a square knot around his neck, Murphey stepped onto the stage with a confident, cowboy presence. Strapping on his guitar, he explained he’d chosen 12 ballads to sing, as though we were all sitting by a campfire.

The last time I’d seen “Murph” perform was in the early 1990s at Westfest at Copper Mountain Resort in Colorado. I forgot how much his story-like lyrics and crystal-clear voice paint vivid pictures of horses, cattle and the freedom of the open range in my mind. He also has a unique way of picking a guitar so it sounds like a flowing creek, the wind blowing through the trees and other acts of nature.

As I listened to his smooth melodies and message-filled songs, I was reminded of another Colorado singer, John Denver. Next thing I knew, Murphey was singing “Boy from the Country,” a song he wrote and that was recorded by Denver. The words reminded me of today’s ranchers, the real environmentalists and stewards of the land.

He tried to tell us we should love the land//We turned our heads and laughed//And we did not understand//Sometimes I think that boy from the country//Is the only one who sees//Because the boy from the country//Doesn’t want to see the forest from the trees.

However, my favorite Murphey songs are those about horses. A longtime horse owner and promoter of stock horses, Murphey sings and writes songs only a horse owner can appreciate. “The Running Blood,” “Quarter Horse Rider,” “Run for the Roses,” “Ponies” and, of course, his blazing 1975 hit “Wildfire” are just some of the horse-related songs from his 1997 album The Horse Legends. He sang a new song that tackled the issue of horse slaughter and related kill pens to human faith, sin and redemption. He cowrote the gospel tune with his wife, Karen, and had an interesting story to tell about the song’s evolution.

Murphey's gentle voice, friendly smile and ranch-relevant lyrics have earned him a loyal fan base.

Murphey's gentle voice, friendly smile and ranch-relevant lyrics have earned him a loyal fan base.

Murphey had attended a horse sale with his three daughters. The girls had looked through all the pens and found a palomino mare they wanted to buy. Murphey is known for expressing his opinions on land use and conservation, but at this performance he shared his views on horse slaughter with members of the audience, many of whom didn’t own horses. He explained how the different pens are set up for horses at sales and the palomino mare could have landed in the kill pen. He also touched on the overpopulation of horses and how without slaughter houses in the United States many of these horses are being transported across the border to Canada and Mexico where there aren’t regulations for the humane processing of animals. With so many celebrities promoting radical, animal-rights groups and policies, it’s nice to see one rooted with realistic views of the West and livestock.

Murphey’s story has a happy ending. When the horse was brought into the sale ring, Murphey bought it for “a song,” or little money. On the way home, the mare tore up his trailer and wasn’t receptive to being handled. But one day, his youngest daughter, Morgan, who was 9 years old at the time, held out her hand and was able to touch the horse’s face. That started a lasting bond between the girl and the horse. Murphey said that today the horse is one of the best in his family’s string.

One rainy morning, Karen was gazing at the drenched horse outside. She turned to Murphey, tears streaming down her face like rain on the window panes, and handed him a napkin with the words that became the muse for the song.

The couple currently lives in Beulah, Colorado, where they raise horses and cattle. Murphey performs at Fir Amphitheater, a solar-powered, environmentally friendly facility in southern Colorado. His gig is part of the Rio Grande Scenic Railway train ride from Alamosa to La Veta. Murphey also will be the featured entertainer at Western Horseman’s 75th Anniversary Celebration and Ride this July in Colorado Springs, Colorado. For more information, see the link on the Western Horseman homepage.

~Jennifer

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