Research Is Important When Writing About Real People

As a songwriter, Michael Martin Murphey does his homework.

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Michael Martin Murphey’s preview of his Cowboy Songs III: Rhymes Of The Renegades during West Fest last fall was a great lesson in songwriting.

Michael Martin Murphey’s preview of his Cowboy Songs III: Rhymes Of The Renegades during West Fest at Copper Mountain, CO last fall was a great lesson in songwriting, though Michael probably didn’t think about it being so when he planned the evening.

Together with Western historian Joe Bob Tinsley, Michael performed the album, adding anecdotes about the songs and how they were written, as well as stories about the “renegades” he sings about: Frank and Jesse James, Cole Younger, Billy Gray, Sam Blass, Belle Star, and Billy the Kid, among others. He duets with Marty Robbins on “Big Iron,” Chris LeDoux on “Strawberry Roan,” Bill Miller on “Belle Star,” Hal Ketchum on “Frank James’ Farewell,” written by Ketchum, his son Ryan on “Roses and Thorns,” and Debbie Nims on “Billy Gray.”

The songwriting lesson at the concert was hearing Michael and Tinsley talk about the 17 songs on the album, and realizing just how much research went into its making. The concert was confirmation that research is important in order to lend an air of authenticity to the songs.

“I chose to use ore identifiable people for this album project, but there are incredible stories about people you’ve probably never heard of,” Michael said. “In my research of 225 Western outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Butch Cassidy, to lesser known ones like Bill Longley and John Wesley Hardin, the profession that most of them engaged in was cowboy and rancher. And I’m already getting some flack about putting the cowboys in a bad light by focusing on the dark side, but I say ‘No, I’m focusing on the outlaws, and the fact that they happened to be cowboys is something that I can’t do anything about.'”

During his research, Murphey found that sometimes circumstances precluded the chosen profession of the men and women he sings about. For instance, he says the James brothers would rather have been preachers or ranchers.

“They never got to pursue that line of work because they were caught up in the Civil War, and the pre-Civil War struggle. After the Civil War, Missouri passed a law that if you had been in the Confederacy, you could not be a minister or a deacon in the church, and you couldn’t own land. So there were the two professions the brothers wanted to be: rancher, farmer, and minister. Furthermore, if you had been in Quantrell’s band, you were to be shot on sight. The James brothers were in Quantrell’s Raiders. And last, you couldn’t own a business or be head of one. So the James brothers were decreed outlaws by law, so they had to hide out… but they didn’t have to rob banks and kill people.”

Murphy cites events today that parallel stories like the one about the James brothers. One such instance involved a rancher who lost his land to the government. Another is the situation faced by loggers and timber companies because of the spotted owl.

“The wars we are fighting today are pretty much over resources – oil, environment. All I can say is that there are lessons to be learned in Rhymes Of The Renegades.”

A number of the songs Michael recorded for the album were written years ago, such as “Jesse James,” thought to have been written by a former slave named Billy Gashade, who is mentioned in the song as its author. Others were written by modern day writers, such as Ketchum’s song about the last days of Frank James. While several of the songs are well-known anthems of the characters they are about, Murphey wanted to make sure the versions he recorded were the accurate ones. It took untold hours of research to uncover the original versions of the songs, and to check facts about who wrote them and when they were written. The singer/songwriter includes some of this information on the liner notes of the album, but he was able to add anecdotes and sidebars throughout his concert that added to the legends of these men and women.

Not wanting to leave out the ladies who would qualify as “renegades,” Michael sought a song about Belle Star, who found herself attracted to outlaws, notably Cole Younger and Sam Starr. Michael could not find a song that depicted her as his research indicated she was, so he wrote “Belle Star” for the album.

Michael says that through his research, and during the recording of the album, he developed a purpose for his recording.

“The album’s mission is not to celebrate the outlaws or the gunfighters, but to try to simply present their ballads as Americana, and their lives as part of the American fabric of life an what we’ve come to know as western material,” he said. “And hopefully it will help people dig deep into the lyrics that are there, both in the old and new songs, and try to learn some lessons about what happens when people become outlaws and why they become outlaws… why they become renegades in our society… why they rob banks. And if we’re not romanticizing them, like Hollywood and dime store novels did, then maybe we can create some human sympathy for both sides of the question.”


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