Michael Martin Murphey's Cowboy Christmas Ball
Back to the land for the holidays
By Jim Caligiuri,
3:20PM, Wed. Dec. 12, 2012
Sunday evening, Michael Martin Murphey brings his Cowboy Christmas show to the One World Theatre for two performances, 6 & 8:30pm. He’s been sharing this brand of holiday party for more than two decades, but 19 years ago he discovered the annual Cowboy Christmas Ball held in Anson, a northern suburb of Abilene preserving a tradition that began there in 1885.
Afterward, Murphey chose to incorporate the spirit of the Ball into his show, helping keep the event alive while also celebrating the season. Here’s a dialog I had last week with Murphey about the Ball and this year’s Cowboy Christmas.
Geezerville: When did you start adding the multimedia parts to the show? How much of it changes year to year?
Michael Martin Murphey: I started adding things like that about 20 years ago. I started using some props and having a backdrop. Then I discovered the Anson Christmas Ball, which this year turns a 127 years old. When I found out they were still operating, they called my up to play on it. I was astounded.
I went down there and filmed the event, so that we're able to take the spirit of what goes on there – a great Texas tradition – all over the country. We have two big projection screens, special props that we use, and a backdrop. We have some interesting people in the band including a Native American flute player.
We use hammered dulcimer, fiddlers, steel guitar, bass, and no drums [laughs].
G: Does that make it bluegrass? I’ve really enjoyed your recent bluegrass recordings.
MMM: We don’t actually play any bluegrass in this show. I have in the past. This year there’s some banjo in the clawhammer style. We try to recreate the spirit of the tradition of the Ball, which is heavily steeped in frontier music. It’s highly scripted so it comes across more as a play, but there’s some room for improvisation. This is the most organized show I’ve ever done since I started Cowboy Christmas.
G: I’m always impressed you bring new ideas to the concept of cowboy music.
MMM: I think a lot of people like cowboy music, but they don’t know that they like cowboy music. Some people think it’s country music or think it’s somehow too modern country music. Cowboy music is much older than the phrase “country music.” Older than hillbilly music. Older than the Grand Ole Opry. It comes right out of the working man’s and working woman’s tradition of being out on the land. How you connect that with Christmas is the point of the whole show.
The original Christmas story, regardless of what you believe about that, is a pastoral story. Jesus was born with farm animals all around – an extremely low class birth. The first to get the news of the birth are shepherds, and the kings don’t find out until later. It’s really kind of the origins of democracy and freedom 2,000 years ago, that the foundation of Christianity is all about the very lowest class people on the totem pole.
Someone who picked up on the pastoral idea was Handel in the Messiah. He did a lot of pastoral music in the Messiah, which is probably the best known piece of music in the history of Western Civilization.
G: I’m beginning to see the connection with cowboys living off the land.
MMM: You know cowboys and cattle don’t get holidays. Cowboys feeding cattle on Christmas Eve is a lot closer to the spirit of the original story than somebody at a shopping mall buying stuff.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not putting that down and I don’t have a cynical attitude toward the commercialization of Christmas. It’s great to have all the lights and decorations. It’s great that people have the spirit of giving. Peace on Earth at least once a year, even for a few hours, even if it’s spent in traffic trying to get to the Galleria mall in Houston or trying to get out of town to visit your relatives in the country.
It’s great that all that happens, but I think it’s a good reminder that it’s very connected to the land, to agriculture. We try to get that across in a very Texas way.