The Meaning Behind “Wildfire” by Michael Martin Murphey and the Unsolved Mystery at the Heart of the Song

If you’re looking for best songs about animals, best ghost story songs, even a category as general as best singer/songwriter tracks, “Wildfire” by Michael Martin Murphey pretty much qualifies for them all. The song was a No. 3 hit in 1975 and continues to captivate newcomers with its beauty and mystery.

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What is the song about? How did Murphey come up with the song? And what was the legend that Murphey claims subconsciously inspired it? Let’s take a ride on “Wildfire” and find out all the answers. Actually, in the case of this ever-mysterious song, maybe it’s better to just ask all the questions.

A Bad Night’s Sleep but a Great Song

Michael Martin Murphey has released dozens of albums, while also writing many songs for others over his long, distinguished career. But like many artists, there is that one song that stands out when you think about his work. “Wildfire” catapulted him into the Top 10 from relative obscurity, and it never has left the public consciousness over the years. (Just ask David Letterman.)

Not bad at all for a song that Murphey claims to have dreamed up. Murphey was in California working with fellow writer Larry Cansler on a project intended for Kenny Rogers. Because they worked such long hours, Murphey would often stay at Cansler’s and sleep on his floor. One night, fate intervened, and Murphey dreamed a strange tale that he thought would make a great song.

He woke up and quickly corralled Cansler to help him write it. The Gambler wasn’t getting his hands on this song, however. Murphey recorded it, and based on excellent feedback from all those to whom he played it, released it himself for a massive hit.

An Equine Legend

In trying to pinpoint the origin of “Wildfire,” Murphey mentions a kind of equine ghost story that he was once told. He told The Boot: “The song came from deep in my subconsciousness. My grandfather told me a story when I was a little boy about a legendary ghost horse that the Indians talked about.”

To their credit, Murphey and Cansler didn’t try to connect all the dots in the song. They instead simply tried to capture the feel of Murphey’s dream. That’s part of the reason why the song has mystified so many people. All those omitted story points also mean people get to fill in their own blanks, which also leads to “Wildfire” becoming a kind of healing element in their lives.

“I can’t tell you I understand what the song means, but I think it’s about getting above the hard times,” Murphey said. “I’ve had people tell me they wish they could ride that mystical horse and get away from their hard times, whatever they are.”

What is the Meaning of “Wildfire”?

Like all good ghost stories, “Wildfire” is full of portent and menace: Whirlwinds engulfing riders on horseback, hoot-owls giving warnings. Yet this is ultimately a redemptive song, with both the narrator and doomed girl destined for deliverance from pain and woe thanks to this magical horse.

Note that in the first verse, the present tense is in play, suggesting the girl has already met her fate and is in the afterlife on this magical horse. Then we go back in time in the second verse to find out what happened to her, how the killing frost ended her life, but also summoned her savior: And the pony she called Wildfire / Busted down his stall.

In the final verse, the narrator awaits his call to eternity so he can be reunited with this pair: She’s coming for me, I know / And on Wildfire, we’re both gonna go. Or at least that’s what we think happens in “Wildfire.” For every fan of Michael Martin Murphey’s signature song, there’s a different interpretation. And there are millions of fans of it, so you do the math.

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Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

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