Saturday, October 18, 2008

Michael Murphey -- "Wildfire" (1975)

Boy, the things they dared to write about in the 70's soft rock era. "Wildfire" was a mid-tempo ballad about a ghost and her beautiful horse. Is that any better than Henry Gross crooning Beach Boys-style about his dog Shannon being swept out to sea and drowning? And America singing about "A Horse With No Name?"

It's possible that "Wildfire" has retained a small modicum of cool, simply because Michael Murphey sang it on David Letterman's show in May 2007. Paul Schaeffer even went to the trouble to learn the solo piano introduction.

Michael Murphey pioneered the whole "cowboy" thing with a soft rock production, a succesful trend hugely exploited by the "Urban Cowboy"soundtrack in 1980. Even now, many years after "Wildfire" was his one and only biggest hit, he markets himself as a "cowboy" as much as John McCain drops the word "maverick." He's a good looking guy with a beard and a ragged sort of wanderer look, and puts out albums of "cowboy songs."

She comes down from Yellow Mountain.
On a dark, flat land she rides,
On a pony she named Wildfire.
With a whirlwind by her side,
On a cold Nebraska night.

Oh, they say she died one winter.
When there came a killing frost,
And the pony she named Wildfire.
Busted down its stall,
In a blizzard he was lost.

She ran calling Wildfire. [x3]

By the dark of the moon I planted.
But there came an early snow.
There's been a hoot-owl howling by my window now.
For six nights in a row.
She's coming for me, I know,
And on Wildfire we're both gonna go.

We'll be riding Wildfire. [x3]

Sensitivity sold a lot of records in the 70's (see Dan Fogelberg, Eric Carmen), so "Wildfire" arrived at virtually the perfect time. You've got a good looking singer with a nice folksy voice, a gorgeous classical piano motif that both opens and closes the song, lots of nice major 7th chords, a poignant ghost story and a rousing chorus where there's a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' at the end.

In 1975, they ate that stuff up. Yes, there was a decent wimp factor, I'm not denying it. I remember not even knowing whether I was supposed to even like it or not when it came out. But I can filter out the slight sappiness because it's just really a very good song. I like that classical piano opening and closing, even if it does verge on the pretentious. When the song kicks in on smooth bounding major/major seventh chords, those high electric guitar notes can either be felt as "genuine wilderness outdoors" or "give me a break!"

So let's roll back to 1976, when Murphey performed "Wildfire" on TV's "Midnight Special."

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