Greg and Jan Schiferl are hoping for one change when country music legend Michael Martin Murphey performs Sept. 6 at 8 p.m. at their ranch.
Not in his music, but in the weather.
“We’ve been hosting concerts in our horse arena for 16 years, and this is Michael’s second time with us,” Jan said. “The last time he was here, it was the iconic concert. It had poured rain, and the grounds were flooded and full of mud. We had to work with getting fans into the horse arena for the concert and finding places for the buses and other vehicles to park. But the show went on, and it was fantastic.”
Murphey was one of the first concerts at the WJ Schiferl Ranch, south of Yankton along U.S. Highway 81. For two hours, he entertained the packed arena with new music and old favorites.
His hits have stood the test of time: “Wildfire,” “What’s Forever For?,” “Carolina In The Pines,” “Geronimo’s Cadillac” and many more.
Murphey — known by his fans as “MMM” — fondly remembers the show, he told the Press & Dakotan in an email interview. Mostly, he remembers the people who made the night so special and which has brought him back for a return engagement.
“The primary thing I remember is the kindness and hospitality of the Schiferl family, and their commitment to bring the music of the grazing culture of ranchers to the people in that region,” he said. “I recall having had a great fellow feeling with the audience; I was among my own kind, for the most part, but also very happy to bring the message of the importance of regenerative agriculture through responsible management of grazing animals to new people in the audience.”
Jan Schiferl has found a similar sentiment among both artists and audiences through the years. The concert series began when the Schiferls hosted a barn dance and discovered the incredible acoustics of their horse arena.
“I turned to Greg and said, ‘We should hold concerts in here!’ He thought I was crazy,” she said with a laugh. “We started with (cowboy poet) Baxter Black, who drew about 400. We were really pleased and did it again the next year. We can hold about 600 in our arena, and we generally get crowds of 400-600 people for these concerts.”
The Schiferls often work one to two years ahead — they’re already working on next year’s concert — but won’t book just anyone.
“We want a certain artist and a wholesome family show that matches our values,” she said. “We can just tell when an act isn’t right for our venue. And we have artists who have played here and who recommend other artists who would fit well for us. They provide leads for making contact and talking with other musicians.”
One thing will remain the same for each concert — the horse arena setting.
“Everyone who has performed here has commented on how this is such an intimate venue and what a special atmosphere we have here. They love being so close to the audience and looking into their faces,” Jan said. “Last year, Billy Dean said he wasn’t going out on stage with a play list. He said he had a feel for the audience and would just play whatever they wanted.”
Murphey has performed for nearly 50 years. He recently released his new album “Austinology: Alleys of Austin,” a CD celebrating an era of Americana Music and Austin, Texas. He was recently named recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Murphey holds a loyal following, including his own “groupies,” Jan said.
“For Michael Martin Murphey, we have people coming from Rapid City, Sioux Falls, Lincoln, Omaha and Minneapolis,” she said. “We want everyone to hear a good show and to have a great evening.”
The Press & Dakotan recently caught up with Murphy, who was enjoying a mini-vacation before hitting the road for national appearances.
• What can people expect from your upcoming concert at the Schiferl Ranch? And what is it like performing in a horse arena? Have you performed at similar venues, and do you like the smaller, intimate concerts?
• MMM: I have no preference for the size of the venue. I adapt my show to the situation. I have performed in a number of horse arenas and always enjoy that atmosphere. It fits my love of cowboy culture and Western heritage.
• Can you tell us more about what you’re up to lately, including your “Austinology” album? Are you working a number of outdoor concerts?
• MMM: As is usually the case in the summer, I have been performing a lot of outdoor concerts. People love them in the summer — when the weather is good! I created my own venue in Red River, New Mexico, which is an outdoor venue under the stars, but we also have a large tent right next to the amphitheater where we can move the audience, if need be.
The “Austinology” album has been one of the most artistically passionate pursuits of my entire career. I’m not one to look back, but the “Outlaws and Armadillos Exhibition” mounted by the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville over a three-year period motivated me to take pause and consider those amazing years of the 1970s when Nashville lost its control over country music and Texas and the Southwest became pre-eminent.
It was real rebellion by poets and passionate musicians against the Country Music Star System. … The shackles and chains were broken by the songwriters and artists from the Southwest who insisted on a more poetic, more cosmic kind of country music — a more literary approach to telling stories that mattered, with a poetic twist that went beyond rhyme and meter in lyrics.
Those of us who moved to Austin at that time were very much like the American writers of the early 1900s who were exiled in Paris because they refused to write according to the commercial demands of the day — shallow romantic novels and detective stories. We gathered in cafes and coffee houses — and sometimes saloons where people listened instead of getting rowdy — comparing notes and trading ideas, inviting criticism from our fellow artists.
It was an enlightened time, and I tried to cover that style of songwriting on “Austinology.” It may never come again unless people find a way to make room for reading and appreciation of creative writing that is not corrupted by mass media, internet, etc.
• Can people expect to hear your classics at the Schiferl Ranch? Will you perform new music? How would you describe your music, and has it changed through the years?
• MMM: Yes, I do the classics, and I thoroughly enjoy doing it — even as I also introduce new material into the show. I do both. I have never been able to come up with a description for my music, as I am a lover of all good music from every genre.
My music is very much a story-telling music, but not always. And I use old classical techniques, jazz, American and ethnic folk music from many countries, country, western, rock and blues to tell my story. My lyric writing is firmly based on classical tradition and methodology. When I break those rules and methods, I make sure I know what I’m doing.
My music changes every day — not “over the years” — because I’m interested in everything. I’m an intellectual, but please understand that I am not saying that makes me some kind of genius. I am simply a craftsman, plying my trade with all the tools I can find at my disposal.
• So many people quickly associate your name with “Wildfire.” Will you perform it next week, and what was the backstory or inspiration for it?
• MMM: I will always perform “Wildfire” in every show. I am there for the audience, not for myself.
As for the inspiration and backstory for “Wildfire,” it was as a song that came to me in a dream, and I am still trying to understand that dream. The Bible says the interpretation of dreams is God’s business, so I ask God to help me understand the song every time I sing it.
Though not all songs come from dreams, there is a dreamlike aspect in every song I write to some degree. Over the years, I have come to realize that the meaning of “Wildfire” is very much related to ghost stories and legends about horses I heard and read about as a child growing up in the American West.
One of the most prevalent of those legends is the folk story of the Ghost Horse of the Plains, which was prevalent among Native Americans and pioneer American cultures alike. I highly recommend that you look into it and research it — and don’t just use what you read on the internet.
• How did you start writing for so many stars early in your career?
• MMM: I never wrote songs for any particular star. I just wrote songs that I thought were good work, and my publishers pitched them to various producers and stars.
Sometimes “stars” discover the songs on their own, before they were stars. Lyle Lovett says he discovered my music while he was a student at Texas A&M; he says he attended my concerts there and became interested in my style.
Later on, when he became a star, he recorded a song of mine that he heard when he was starting out, “West Texas Highway,” on an album that he called “Step Inside This House.” It was a collection of songs that influenced him rather than a collection of his own songs.
My album “Austinology” is sort of a hybrid of that approach — my songs and the songs of others from the artists of the 1970s in Austin.
• What keeps you going in the music business? Why do you think your music has stood the test of time?
• MMM: What keeps me going is that this is my calling! I know in my heart that God called me to be a singer, songwriter, performer and entertainer. Accepting that calling is what keeps me going. That said, it takes commitment and hard work.
• Is there anything else you would like to add?
MMM: The Grazer Culture of the World is crucial to the health and survival of the Planet Earth as we as humans have known it and been nurtured by it. Only cattle and other grazing ungulates, properly managed to mimic Nature, can save the planet.
I am an artist who sings the American version of the livestock culture’s songs and supports the science, right practices, arts, history, folklore, spiritual and social traditions of the culture that can make that happen.
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