For the past 25 years, beginning right after Thanksgiving and running up to Christmas, country music icon Michael Martin Murphey has been bringing his Cowboy Christmas show to towns across the Southwest.
“We actually started doing Cowboy Christmas shows before that, but it wasn’t a tour; just three or four shows scattered out over the end of November and December,” he said. “We started off doing stuff in New Mexico when I lived in Taos, and we’d go down to the panhandle and do something in Amarillo, but then I released the ‘Cowboy Christmas’ album in 1991. It took off and became such an item that we turned into a tour.”
Not your average concert of standard Christmas songs, Murphey’s tour comes with a heap of history behind it. The Cowboy Christmas show is based on an annual ball that began in Anson, Texas, in 1885.
‘Cowboy Christmas Ball’Anson’s annual ball began in 1885 and became a hit when a journalist for the New York Gazette and the New York Times named William Lawrence “Larry” Chittenden went to a wedding that was actually a big dance. After the event, he wrote a poem called the “Cowboy Christmas Ball.” Murphey said it became one of the first pieces of cowboy poetry that became internationally popular.
“It was a huge hit in The London Times. In fact, it was a bigger hit in that paper than it was in any American paper, at least at first,” he said. “Chittenden’s uncle owned a big cattle ranch out in West Texas, so he comes out there for this wedding, he sees it and he’s so amused by the cowpunchers dancing with the ladies dressed up in their ball dresses that he writes this funny poem called ‘Cowboy Christmas Ball’ and it becomes incredibly popular.”
Murphey said he first became aware of the ball in 1985 when his mother gave him a book of the stories behind Western songs called “He was Singing this Song” by Jim Bob Tinsley. Tinsley used to be a professor at University of North Carolina and the University of Northern Florida and was also in Gene Autry’s band. Murphey said he learned the song, thinking it was “a nice song to sing at Christmas.” He then decided to take it even bigger.
“I started doing a few Cowboy Christmas Balls. And I did an album called ‘Cowboy Christmas,’” Murphey said.
And then he got the call.
“Long about 1992, I get a phone call from the people in Anson, Texas, and they said, ‘Hi, we’re the Texas Cowboy Christmas Ball committee, did you know that the ball is still going on? We’ve kept it alive since 1885,” he said. “They said, ‘We want you to come play for it.’”
But there was one condition, Murphey said: The committee asked that the band not include drums “because we have too many old-timers who come and they can’t stand the drums.”
“So we let the drummer sit it out for that one show,” Murphey said. “Our jaws dropped at what we saw. We saw a picture from the Old West – people who had been doing these dances for over a hundred years. It was their tradition in their family, and there were a few old-timers when I first started playing it who were in their 90s.”
Keeping the legacy aliveMurphey said his relationship with the ball became more involved. Now, it was not just about the music or the dance, it was about keeping its history alive.
About eight years ago, he was asked to be a part of the Southwest Collection in Lubbock, Texas, an archival collection of materials about the history of the American Southwest, Murphey said. They asked him to be in their Crossroads Collection, which is about Texas musicians.
“They wanted my papers, my letters, all these things,” he said. “After a couple of years of that, I said, ‘You know what? You might notice that a whole lot of this stuff I’ve given you is about the Cowboy Christmas Ball, and maybe we ought to start a sub-archive or a separate archive that’s the history of the Texas Cowboy Christmas Ball because nobody’s ever done it: It’s a hundred-and fifty-year-old tradition.”
Murphey said the people in Lubbock, only an hour from Anson, did not know about the Cowboy Christmas Ball or its rich history.
“That year, I took them over there, and their jaws dropped just like mine did years and years ago. And they said, ‘OK, we’re going to start an archive,’” he said, adding that they began collecting all manner of items related to the ball.
“We began with a professional archivist to start collecting materials about this tradition and about the original ball ... so we use those images now that we’ve collected and throw those up on the screen.”
And there’s a book called “Dancin’ in Anson.” Written by Paul Carson, professor emeritus at Texas Tech University, with a forward by Murphey.
When asked if he thinks he is helping to keep the legacy of the ball alive, Murphey’s answer is quick.
“I don’t think, I know I am,” he said, laughing. “I’m absolutely certain I’m carrying it on and happy to be doing it. It’s not a sacrifice, by the way; it’s nothing but fun. I’ve never had anything but fun doing it, and it’s been one of the defining things in my career.”
‘Cowboy Christmas’ showWith all the material Murphey accumulated over the years, he said he has no shortage of ways to keep his annual Cowboy Christmas show fresh.
“It’s from that tradition we developed this entire show, changed out the material every year, found all kinds of old-time dance tunes that they danced to at the original ball,” he said. “This is really a show about Southwest music, too, and how it’s developed over the years. From Texas to Colorado, to New Mexico to Wyoming, it’s about Western music’s history from the original cowboy era all the way up to the present. We throw all that together in one show.”
Murphey said the big change this year will be the addition of dancers who will perform old-time dances, re-enacting them on stage as the band plays.
And even though Murphey – who is known for hits such as “Wildfire,” “Geronimo’s Cadillac” and “Carolina in the Pines” – has been performing the Cowboy Christmas show for a quarter century, he said it’s still a good time.
“I’m having more fun with it than I’ve ever had. I love the challenge every year of changing the show and bringing in new stuff and surprising people with new elements,” he said. “I love being able to keep the tradition going; it’s been a part of my life’s work at this point that I’ll always be grateful for. It draws good crowds and makes people happy, and I don’t know what else you could ask for.”