Story Behind The Song: ‘Wildfire,’ Michael Martin Murphey
Michael Martin Murphey talked to The Boot about his biggest hit.
I was working on a concept album called ‘The Ballad of Calico’ for Kenny Rogers with my friend Larry Cansler. I was in my third year of college at UCLA, but I was living in the mountains in California. I would drive down to Larry’s apartment in Los Angeles and sleep on his floor, because we would work sometimes 22 hours a day on the album.
The night ‘Wildfire’ came to me, Larry went to bed and I went to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor. I dreamed the song in its entirety. I woke up and pounded on Larry’s door and said, ‘Can you come down and help me with this song?’ His wife got up and made us coffee and we finished it in two or three hours.
The song came from deep down in my subconsciousness. My grandfather told me a story when I was a little boy about a legendary ghost horse that the Indians talked about. In 1936, author J. Frank Dobie identified this ghost horse story as the most prominent one in the lore of the Southwest. We were working on my album ‘Blue Sky, Night Thunder’ at the time, and my producer Bob Johnson said, ‘I don’t see how that song will fit in with the rest of the material for that album.’ I asked him if I could record it as an album cut, because I felt very strongly about it.
We recorded the song at Caribou Ranch in Colorado, ten thousand feet up in the Rocky Mountains. After we recorded the song, Bob said, ‘You know it came out better than I though it would. Let’s play it for the kitchen staff here and see what they think.’ They loved it, so Bob said, ‘OK, we’ll release it as the first single.’
It came out, took off in Chicago and Milwaukee, and public demand made it a hit, which proves that those of us in music have no clue about anything when it comes to what will be a hit song. It came out in the disco era in 1975 and was a pop hit, going to No. 1 in R&R and No. 2 in Billboard. It was one of the last gold singles before they stopped releasing songs as singles. It’s still in the Top 20 songs for airplay for BMI.
I can’t tell you that I understand what the song means, but I think it’s about getting above the hard times. I’ve had people tell me they wish they could ride that mystical horse and get away from their hard times, whatever they are. I also think a lot of it is wrapped up in my Christian upbringing. In the Biblical book of Revelations, it talks about Jesus coming back on a white horse. I came to be a Christian when I was five or six years old and I was a cowboy kid with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, so when the preacher told me that Jesus would come back for me on a white horse, I was all wrapped up in that.
In the ghost story, the horse is a symbol of the Savior, in the same way C.S. Lewis used animals in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia.’ When I lived in California in the late 60s, a lot of my friends were into the culture of the day — drugs and free sex — and I felt out of place there. After ‘Wildfire’ came out and was a hit for me, I was able to move back to Texas. So not only was a song I dreamed my most famous song, it also helped me get back to my native state.
People always ask me if I have a horse named Wildfire, and up until a few years I did not. I always said I’d never name a horse after the song. But when I got my Palomino mare, she was exactly what I always dreamed Wildfire to be, so gave her the name to my most famous song.