For the 17th year, Michael Marti
Michael Martin Murphey brings Cowboy Christmas Ball back to Oklahoma City
For the 17th year, the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter is helping the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum continue the American holiday tradition.
n Murphey is bringing a truly American Christmas tradition to Oklahoma City.
The singer-songwriter will keep the customs of an old-fashioned Western holiday with his popular Cowboy Christmas Ball at 7 p.m. Friday at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
“It’s the only really American Christmas tradition that we have. Everything else is European,” Murphey said in a phone interview last week from Lubbock, Texas.
“Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’ (is) Russian. The Victorian Christmas and Charles Dickens always comes around every year. But there’s nothing that’s really about the American feeling of Christmas, and I think the Cowboy Christmas Ball is that.”
Murphey modeled his Cowboy Christmas Ball, now in its 19th year of touring the Southwest, on a more than century-old tradition started in Anson, Texas. In 1885, an Anson couple got married at Christmastime and invited all the ranching families. Famed East Coast journalist Larry Chittenden was in town and wrote a poem about the event.
The poem was published in the London Times, The New York Times and many other newspapers, and the ball became a yearly tradition. People began coming from thousands of miles away to take part in the Cowboy Christmas Ball, which last year in Anson drew participants from several surrounding states and even a couple from Japan.
A Texas native, Murphey, 66, still plays the Anson ball every year and helped the Oklahoma City museum establish its event.
“Next to the Anson event … Oklahoma City is the most important to me. Because they get it, what a phenomenal American tradition this is,” said Murphey, who now divides his time among Texas, Colorado and Wisconsin.
“Oklahoma City every year proves that this is a fabulous, fun tradition. It may be all about history, but it’s the history of fun,” he added with a laugh.
“They just get out there and just kill it with the ‘Cotton-eyed Joe’ and the schottische and all these great dances. And the ladies make these incredible dresses, these Victorian ball gowns, and everybody else wears Western clothes. And the kids get out and dance and go crazy because it’s a family-style dance. All this has been documented and it goes back to the original ball.”
In the past year, the Grammy-nominated musician has expanded his efforts to preserve the history of the Cowboy Christmas Ball. He has been working with the Southwest Archive in Lubbock to gather more historical photographs that he has worked into the show, along with clips from a 1953 documentary about the Anson ball.
“It shows the people dancing at the ball, and some of the guys that were at the original ball are interviewed. And then those same guys who are in their 80s and 90s — one guy’s even 101 — they’re out there dancing at the ball to the music they’ve danced to ever since they were a kid,” Murphey said.
“Just in one year … we have really found some incredible stuff: a fiddle that was played at the original ball (and) great pictures of Larry Chittenden. … We found the guest book that people signed going all the way back into the ‘30s when they did the first reenactment of the ball in ’34.”
The Cowboy Christmas Ball isn’t Murphey’s only effort to continue Western musical traditions. In June, he released “Tall Grass & Cool Water,” the sixth album in his “Cowboy Songs” series and the third in his “Buckaroo Blue Grass” set, which explores the similarities between bluegrass and American cowboy music.
Produced by his son Ryan Murphey, the new album features the epic “James Gang Trilogy” along with the Western Music Hall of Famer’s first recording of The Sons of the Pioneers standard “Cool Water.”
“I finally found the band to do the arrangement I hear in my head, and that was the main reason I did it now as opposed to earlier,” Murphey said. “But my favorite thing on the album is ‘Blue Prairie.’ I love that song. It’s one of the more obscure Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneer songs that to me is timeless.”
Murphey closes the new album crooning with Western songstress Carin Mari on “Springtime in the Rockies,” a song that brings back fond memories of his childhood vacations in Colorado.
“That one is the one that I sang around the campfire … when I was a kid with my parents, my grandparents and my aunts and uncles and cousins. We all sat around with the (park) rangers back when rangers had time to do that and sang ‘Springtime in the Rockies,’” he said.
“‘Tall Grass and Cool Water’ is about the things that you feel and the stories that get told in the prairies and the mountains,” he said.
The prolific singer-songwriter was in the studio last week working on his upcoming album, which is “not cowboy or bluegrass necessarily” but will consist of acoustic originals.
However, his focus during the holidays remains the Cowboy Christmas Ball, and he and his wife Karen are looking forward to leading off the dances Friday night in Oklahoma City.
“It’s the best dance that we put on because you’ve got so much space. It’s the most dancing that we see at any of them,” he said.
“There’s families that their kids grow up and get married, and we showcase them in the grand march. Sadly, there’s old-timers that we’ve known for years that pass on and now there’s a widow out there. It’s really about family and reunion.”
Michael Martin Murphey’s Cowboy Christmas Ball
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
Where: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63.
Information or reservations: www.nationalcowboymuseum.org or 478-2250, Ext. 219.