A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Michael Martin Murphey bringing Cowboy Christmas Ball back to Oklahoma City
For the 18th year, the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter/musician is recreating the western yuletide tradition at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
“I know that Texans would like to claim it — and I’m a Texas, so I’m embarrassed to say this — but Oklahoma City is the cowboy capital of our country. And that’s why I like playing there because we get the real-deal people showing up there,” he said in a phone interview last week.
The Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter/musician will keep the customs of an old-fashioned western holiday with his popular Cowboy Christmas Ball at 7 p.m. Friday (today) at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Murphey, 67, helped start the ball at the Oklahoma City museum, where it is celebrating its 18th anniversary.
“To do it at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in their event center, the people that show up from Kansas, from Texas, from Arkansas, from Missouri, from Colorado, next to the Anson ball, it is the central location for cowboys and cowgirls,” he said. “That’s why I love playing there, because I’m just completely steeped at all times in cowboy tradition. And that’s what this ball’s for.”
Murphey modeled his Cowboy Christmas Ball, now in its 20th 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, and images of people dancing at the Anson event over the years are compiled into videos incorporated into the show.
“This year we have a lot of new video, a lot of new images,” he said. “We have about 25 percent new material in the show … and 50 percent of the videos are new.”
His band also has a popular new member, Mei-Ling Felten, 22, a recent graduate from McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minn., who is playing on her first major tour.
“She’s been blind since birth. She is a keyboard player and fiddle player in the band now. She plays classical, jazz, country, bluegrass, anything, on both instruments. She’s definitely the inspirational hit of the show. Anytime she ever does anything, the audience goes crazy because she’s proof positive … that you can overcome,” Murphey said.
“That’s a big change because at times we’ve got two fiddles and a hammered dulcimer, a steel guitar and a bass going, not to mention what I play, which kind of gets to be an afterthought,” he joked, adding that he still plays banjo and guitar. “We have a much wider range of sounds that we can do this year … and it’s a lot of fun.”
Still, the spirit and format of the show remains the same.
“It’s still about a cowboy remembering back to a simpler time, to cowboy Christmas balls on the frontier. And the older I get, the better I play that part, which is kind of clever planning, I think, on my part,” he said with a laugh. “‘Cause at this point, I do remember simpler times when video games and cable TV and cell phones and computers didn’t interrupt your Christmas experience, when all you had to do was take the phone off the hook and nobody bothered you all day on Christmas.”
The Cowboy Christmas Ball is an all-ages event, and after two decades of performing it, Murphey enjoys seeing teenagers and young adults who have grown up with the holiday tradition. Watching children learn the old dances like the Cotton-eyed Joe, Paul Jones and schottische means so much to Murphey, who has dedicated much of his career to exploring and preserving the musical heritage of the West.
“To see these young people getting into it … they’re totally locked into their heritage musically because this is a heritage show. We do dances that were done 150 years ago in Texas,” he said.
“My favorite thing that happens is great-parents, grandparents and parents — it’s several generations of families — bringing their little children to the ball, dressed up in traditional clothes of the West and dancing these traditional dances. You know, it’s an unbroken line back to our heritage.”
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. 228.