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Murphey Fest puts west back in country

Glen Helen Regional Park, Devore, Cal., Oct. 9-11, 1998

By Dan MacIntosh

DEVORE, CA - "We're putting the Western back in Country & Western" was a common statement heard from the lips of many performers at this three-day musical and cultural festival.

With its eclectic collection of performers, and its various cowboy-approved related activities, Michael Martin Murphey's celebration of the Western lifestyle accomplished this modest goal - at least for a weekend.

Many diehard musicians were on hand to uphold Western tradition, including the comedic Riders in the Sky, living legend Don Edwards, the son of a legend Roy "Dusty" Rogers Jr. and poet Baxter Black.

In addition to these standard-bearers, though, Murphey also threw in a few wild cards.

On Saturday night, the always intriguing Lyle Lovett packed his set with music dominated by selections from his most recent CD "Step Inside This House," dedicated to his favorite Texas songwriters. A few selections were well-known, such as with his inclusion of "Flying Shoes" by Townes Van Zant, but most were on the obscure side.

Yet by the time Lovett got around to his own catalogue, as with songs like "If I Had a Boat," he finally connected with an audience struggling to relate to all these unfamiliar songs.

The next night saw a rare acoustic performance from Steve Earle. Accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and a few trusty harmonicas, Earle concentrated on story songs about troubled lives, including, of course, his own storied existence.

In between numbers, Earle bantered humorously wit the audience, surprising since Earle is not usually known for being lighthearted and because the majority of these listeners were not all his fans.

Instead, this crowd of mostly Chris LeDoux supporters were hoping Earle might help them forget about the bitter cold winds gusting through this outdoor amphitheater, until their man hit the stage. Earle closed his set by grabbing for a mandolin and ripping through an emotionally charged rendition of "Copperhead Road."

Suzy Bogguss set on Saturday stuck out like a sore thumb, since she was the only major female performer invited to play this event. Surely Murphey could have rounded up a few worthy cowgirls for the festival. The name Rosie Flores comes immediately to mind, but there are many others who could have added a little feminine charm to this testosterone fueled gathering. Hearing Bogguss s sweet voice on the John Hiatt penned "Drive South" only made the listener imagine what might ave been, if only the organizers had reached for a little more gender balance.

Murphey performed often throughout the festival, and each of his sets sounded just a little bit different. On Saturday, Murphey covered everything from Irish jigs to swing (as on "Easy on the Pain" where he was joined by his son Ryan). On Sunday, Murphey turned his show into a request fest, as audience members laid notes containing the names of their favorite Murphey songs at the front of the stage.

In addition to all the music (and there was a lot), Westfest also featured a rodeo, crafts for sale, a storytelling area and a Native American section. This was a handy reminder that there was more to the old west than just music.

Murphey said at the outset that this particular Westfest engagement would be dedicated to the memory of Roy Rogers, and many of Rogers' tunes were played throughout the weekend. Judging by the abundance of small children decked out in western gear, and the sprinkling of real cowboys atop their horses during these festivities, such sights would most certainly have made the king of the singing cowboys proud.

And at least for a little while, it was Western music first, and country music a distant second.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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