If someone had told me that while at a Michael Martin Murphey concert in Emporia, Kansas, that I would someday co-write a movie and he would be involved, I would have said, “Yessss!”
I put a quill to paper and have never stopped. The year 2000, my first horror story was published. Then, more of my stories were published and a few poems as well. This area of the world, here in Kansas, isn’t swarming with writers or publishers, even though Willa Cather had lived thirty miles north, and a few other pioneer books were popular.
My family had ties to the Home On The Range story. The book of the same name was a true life account of the settling of Smith County. The author was my mother’s school teacher. Margaret Nelson, who wrote about Doctor Higley, his poem that became a song, and how the county rallied around the new song, that had spread to cowboys and the lonesome prairie.
The Home on the Range cabin was always in the local weekly newspaper, and when I had heard the song in a movie and a few radio commercials, I realized there was something more to it. So, I reread the book and agreed that the Home On The Range story was unique. I put another quill to paper and scribbled out a screenplay.
Circumstances with the cabin changed after the property owner passed away. Relatives were entrusted with the cabin. One nephew, El Dean Holthus and wife Kathy, met a film producer from Wichita and El Dean pitched the movie idea. I had told El Dean that I had written a three-act screenplay about Home on the Range. Things snowballed from there. There was a fundraiser planned for the cabin, featuring Michael Martin Murphey.
Screech the brakes, and go back to Emporia 1978. Michael Martin Murphey had lived in California, had long hair, lived the musician’s dream, and then fell out of love with the lifestyle. He went back to Texas and started on his desire to bring back real cowboy songs. He added his middle name to distinguish himself from an actor named Michael Murphy.
Now, the Home On The Range movie was going forward and the Sunday afternoon fundraiser had arrived. My father and I ate out after church, as always. I sat at a table and looked forward. I gasped. Michael Martin Murphey was eating there with his crew. I went to the salad bar and my father asked Murphey, if they were the entertainment for the program. I said “Hi Michael” and he said “Hi.” As Murphey was leaving, he walked up to me and smiled. I said, “I should tell you, I’m co-writer of the Home On The Range movie with Orin and Ken.” Michael said a few encouraging words and departed the cafe.
At the concert that day, the very last song performed was “Wildfire,” and received a standing ovation. Along with the popularity of the song, Murphey’s stance for America, Christians and patriotism. was expressed. He gave his insights between songs – “pull up your pants, turn your cap around, and salute the flag,” he said.
Months later, the movie was shown in Abilene, at Trails, Rails and Tales, a celebration of the Chisholm Trail. Murphey played Judge John Harlan in the film. He is the father of the two brothers who performed the song, Home On The Range, for the first time in Smith County in the 1870s.
The movie won for best docudrama at the Wrangler Awards at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 2018. I was privileged to accept the award with the film producers and Murphey. This past December, Murphey brought his Christmas show to Kansas and played “Wildfire” on a stage that looked like a cowboy campfire. His voice is so pure, but has aged since the first recordings. In my opinion, aged for the better. He sounds like a cowboy with a lot of miles on a horse. On April 13th, in Oklahoma City, Michael Martin Murphey received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
Michael didn’t know there was a real Home On The Range cabin until El Dean told him at their first introduction. He was pleasantly surprised, to say the least.