Singer Michael Martin Murphey to kick off 'Cowboy Christmas' tour at Prairie Rose

There are just some Christmas traditions you don't mess with, says cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey, who will be kicking off his 18th annual "Cowboy Christmas" at the Prairie Rose near Benton this weekend.

"It's like 'A Christmas Carol' or 'The Nutcracker.' We aren't locked into a particular story like they are. But If we didn't do what people come back for every year, then they would be disappointed," says the singer-songwriter-rancher-conservationist-historian-activist.

"We change around maybe 30 percent every year to freshen it up a little. But if we don't do certain songs like 'The Cowboy Christmas Ball' or 'The Christmas Trail' or 'Two-Step Around the Christmas Tree,' we'd never hear the end of it. And I can't get away without doing 'Wildfire' even though it's not really Christmas," Murphey said of his most famous song during a phone conversation from his Colorado ranch.

Murphey and his Rio Grande Band will be at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon tonight and Saturday.

In the show, Murphey moseys out, sits beside a campfire and reminisces about Christmases past. As he sings, images of cowboys at work and play fill a screen behind him, including vintage footage of the original Cowboy Christmas Ball in Anson, Texas, started in 1885, that Murphey pays homage to in his holiday show. After launching this year's tour here, he'll take the show to 15 other cities before Christmas, including Anson.

Counting his other concerts, Murphey, even at 65, is still on the road about 200 days a year. When he's not performing or writing, he's a cattle and horse rancher with spreads in Colorado, Wisconsin and Texas. He's also an activist for Western culture, prairie conservation and Native American issues.

Murphey was born in Texas and raised in Dallas, but got his love of cowboy culture from visits to his grandfather's ranch. He began singing in junior high and performed rock and folk gigs in Dallas clubs before heading west to attend the University of California at Los Angeles.

As a songwriter in 1960s L.A., he worked with people like Bobbie Gentry, Kenny Rogers and even The Monkees because he was friends with Michael Nesmith. In the 1970s, he returned to Texas to join the Outlaw Country movement headed by Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Besides "Wildfire," Murphey is also known for "Carolina in the Pines," "Long Line of Love," "What's Forever For" and "Don't Count the Rainy Days." Since 1972, he's recorded 35 albums. He's the best-selling cowboy singer in the world and the first since Marty Robbins to get a gold album.

So, how does Murphey distinguish between cowboy music, country music and western music?

"Country is hillbilly music because it came out of Appalachia and the Cumberland Mountains of the Southeast. Western is Scottish and Irish folk music that was turned into bluegrass. It's distinguished by its different instrumentation.

"But cowboy music is the oldest," he says. "It comes from the Celtic, like country, but it also comes from the Spanish because that's what many of the first cowboys were. It also owes a lot to black culture because perhaps 25 percent of our cowboys were freed slaves who went west rather than north. Hollywood never paid much attention until recently, but the music always reflected it."