Before Willie Nelson moved down to Austin, TX to ignite the Outlaw country movement in earnest, there were two guys in the early 70’s, each with three names, that had made the Austin music scene something worth moving to: Jerry Jeff Walker and Michael Martin Murphey. Sure there were a lot of other great acts in Austin at the time, but Jerry Jeff had penned “Mr. Bojangles,” and with Michael Martin’s song and album Geronimo’s Cadillac, this gave the Austin scene the national recognition it deserved.
Geronimo’s Cadillac is not only a great album, but it has that kind of historical importance that makes an album more than just a collection of songs. Michael was the man who coined the phrase “Cosmic Cowboy” to attempt to explain the weird concoction of cowboys, bikers, and hippies that existed in Austin at the time, and still to some extent does today: Cowboy hats and pony tales.
The album has an amazing mix of lyrical themes and musical styles. It’s more Western than Country really, and Michael wasn’t afraid to mix in some rock n’ roll, and even gospel elements into the songs.
“Calico Silver” is my favorite track from the album. Michael plays guitar, but is also an excellent piano player, and it is highlighted in this song. On it’s face this is a song I would normally be tuned off of: tinkling piano, tightly arranged overdubbed strings drifting in an out in the contemporary Nashville style of the time. But the boom and bust theme of this song is so biting, so poignant, along with Michael’s strong vocal performance makes this a timeless track.
“Crack Up in Las Cruces”, “Natchez Trace” and “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” are good old country tunes that really get your blood pumping. All of these songs highlight Michael’s ear for arrangement and strong lyric writing. But he takes his lyrics to the next level with “Michael Angelo Blues.” Again this is a song I may not be tempted by on its face. It features just Michael and his guitar in a sort of singer/songwriter setting, but Michael pulls off creating a tremendous amount of space in the song that opens up the world around you no matter where you are listening to it.
This album does have a few songs I pass right by, like “Rainbow Man” and “Boy From the Country.” It’s not that these are bad songs, but they are a little too hippy dippy for this cowboy. I understand that this was the scene in Austin at the time, that is one of the reasons Geronimo’s Cadillac is such an important and culturally significant album. But just like I will tend to do even with modern artists, if you go from being “progressive” and cross that line to being “preachy”, I’m out. That is actually the beauty of the title track “Geronimo’s Cadillac.” It conveys an opinion, but in a clever and ironic way that is easy to get behind.
Other stand out tracks are “Harbor For My Soul” and “Backslider’s Wine.” The latter would be covered by Jerry Jeff Walker on his album Viva Terlingua which I wrote about in THIS ARTICLE. There are many parallels between Jerry Jeff and Michael, and between Geronimo’s Cadillac, and Viva Terlingua. Jerry Jeff famously absconded with Michael’s band, the Lost Gonzo Band. And both men and albums really helped shine a national spotlight on a burgeoning Austin music scene at the time.
Later Michael Martin Murphy would flee from the Austin music world he was so essential in creating, feeling that it had lost its soul and has become a “scene,” later recounting that his song “Cosmic Cowboys” was written tongue and cheek. A lot of the accounts from the Austin scene at the time paint Michael as an intellectual, but also a little arrogant. During slow songs at the Armadillo World Headquarters he was know to sush his crowd and get angry on stage.
Later Michael would have a few hits on the Adult Contemporary charts, and nowadays is one of the biggest names in the “cowboy music” genre.