Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
When the Grand Ole Opry interviewed Ray Wylie Hubbard before his debut there this past summer, he gave a shout-out to fellow Adamson High School alumnus Michael Martin Murphey.
Murphey, who was a year ahead of Hubbard, performed a song he wrote himself during a school assembly, and Hubbard says it struck him that he could try writing songs too.
“We didn’t have that great of a football team, but we had some really great assemblies. It was a good time,” Hubbard told the Advocate in 2012.
Murphey was an early part of Dallas’ folk music scene, which also included another Adamson alumnus, B.W. Stevenson.
Murphey’s early success was not as a performer but as a songwriter. He wrote a song for the Monkees, “What Am I Doing Haning ’Round,” as well as country songs recorded by big names including Bobby Gentry and Kenny Rogers.
In the early ’70s, you could’ve caught him at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, where he was hanging with Willie and Waylon and the boys. By 1973, he’d released three albums.
The one that made him famous came after he signed with Epic Records, his fourth album, “Blue Sky — Night Thunder,” in 1975.
The album had two hit singles, “Carolina in the Pines” and “Wildfire.” He composed the latter with fellow Texan and University of North Texas alumnus Larry Cansler.
It starts with Murphey’s unmistakable piano riff, which drops off into easy-listening drums and strumming guitar, plus a high-pitched electric guitar riff over the top, and the opening lyrics, “She comes down from Yellow Mountain …”
It hit No. 1 on the easy-listening charts, and if you grew up in the ’70s, you know this song. It was ubiquitous on AM radio as atmospheric static.
The story of the song is heartbreaking. “Wildfire” is a horse that breaks out of its pen in the Nebraska winter. And then his owner, “She ran calling Wildfire,” and she freezes to death trying to find her horse.
Murphey and Cansler were living in California and working night and day on songs for Kenny Rogers’ 1972 album “The Ballad of Calico” when the song came to Murphey.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
He told The Boot in 2016 that he crashed in a sleeping bag on the floor one night, and he dreamed the entire song.
“I woke up and pounded on Larry’s door and said, ‘Can you come down and help me with this song?’ His wife got up and made us coffee, and we finished it in two or three hours,” he told the website.
The idea for the song comes from a story Murphey’s grandfather had told him, a native-American legend about a ghost horse.
“I can’t tell you that I understand what the song means, but I think it’s about getting above the hard times,” Murphey told The Boot. “I’ve had people tell me they wish they could ride that mystical horse and get away from their hard times, whatever they are.”
The album was a hit. It went gold, eventually selling more than 800,000 copies in the United States. Its profitability allowed Murphey to move back to Texas, where he still lives. He also had country hits in the 1980s, including “What’s Forever For.” But his overall career is much greater than a couple of radio hits. Murphey has recorded more than 25 studio albums, including several albums of cowboy songs, bluegrass albums and Christmas albums.
“Wildfire” continues to grab the imagination, and it occasionally re-enters pop culture.
In 2007, David Letterman began sharing his obsession with the song with viewers of “The Late Show,” riffing with bandleader Paul Schaffer about the song for weeks. Letterman described the song as “haunting and disturbingly mysterious, but always lovely.”
Murphey performed “Wildfire” on the show on May 22, 2007.