Michael Martin Murphey Celebrates More Than 30 Years of The Cowboys Christmas Ball Tour

Written by Vernell Hackett
Michael Martin Murphey Celebrates More Than 30 Years of The Cowboys Christmas Ball Tour
Michael Martin Murphey; Courtesy of Michael Martin Murphey

In 1885 the town of Anson, Texas near Abilene held its first Cowboys Christmas Ball at the Star Hotel. William Lawrence Chittenden, a journalist from the Eastern U.S. was visiting in Anson and attended that first ball. He was so impressed by the event that he wrote a poem, “The Cowboys Christmas Ball,” that vividly described the evening of music and dancing. The poem was published in the Texas Western, Anson’s newspaper, and later in a collection of poetry by Chittenden called Ranch Verses, and forever established the history and legend of that first Cowboys Christmas Ball.

The Cowboys Christmas Ball went on for some years, then went dark. In 1934, ironically the year that Chittenden died, two school teachers from Anson took note of America’s revived interest in the roots of the country and decided to hold a folk-dance festival. After they heard of the journalists’ death, Lenora Barrett and Hybernia Grace decided it was time to bring the Cowboys Christmas Ball back to Anson. To their surprise, some of the folks who attended the original ball attended, including Windy Bill from Stanton, mentioned in Chittenden’s ballad as the man who called the dances, and T-Diamond, W.J. Bryan, also named in the poem. The Ball found its permanent home in the new Pioneer Hall, built where the Star Hotel stood before it burned.

That first ball was a bit different from the newly revived one. Men were asked to check their guns at the door and not wear their hats or spurs on the dance floor; women were not allowed to wear long skirts or split skirts. Even today many of the attendees wear the traditional clothing of the 19th century when they come to the Ball.

Enter Michael Martin Murphey, who in the late 1980’s was recording for Warner Brothers Records. The head of the label, Jim Ed Norman, loved Christmas music and suggested to Murphey that they do a Christmas release. “It was too close to Christmas to do a whole album, so we recorded a single, ‘Cowboy Christmas Ball.’ I had known about the old song for a long time, and I loved it.”

As Murphey began to record cowboy music for a subsidiary label for Warner Brothers, Warner Western, he did record several albums of Christmas songs. The singer remembers that the songs for the first album were written about an incident that happened when a grid shut down in New Mexico where he lived. “It was the best Christmas ever – no one could watch TV, there were no video games – so I got out my acoustic guitar and we had a wonderful Christmas. The songs on my first Christmas album were written from that experience. We were already doing Cowboy Christmas shows at that point.”

A few years later, Murphey received a call from the Cowboys Christmas Ball committee in Anson, inviting him to come and play at the original ball. “I said to them, ‘do you mean that original ball is still going on?’ They said yes. I couldn’t do it that year but in 1993 I did play in Anson at the original Cowboys Christmas Ball. I just fell in love with it. It was going back to tradition, the original trail drives, people wearing the clothing of the era. The Ball lasts for three nights, and The Ladies Auxiliary puts on a dinner after the ball that is one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. I was hooked so I wanted to do this ball every year.  They had biggest turnout they had ever when I was there that first year, and people were dancing the Virginia Reel, the Schottische, the waltz. All of these dances influence the dancing we do in country and western music today.” 

The other interesting thing about Anson was there was no dancing, drinking or smoking allowed in the town. “The preachers were not happy with the idea to restore the dance, so Lenora wrote President Roosevelt and guaranteed there would be no drinking or smoking, but that they would still dance. Roosevelt wrote letters to all the churches urging them to allow the dance. To this day, there is no dancing in Anson, so the City Council has to pass a variance every year to allow dancing for those three days of the Ball.”

Murphey has been performing at the Cowboys Christmas Ball in Anson ever since he was invited in 1993. He continues to do his Cowboy Christmas Ball tour as well, something he has done now for just over 30 years. At first his Christmas shows were only music, but later on Murphey decided to turn them into a production for Performing Arts Centers. One of the first he approached was Bass Hall in Fort Worth, Texas.

 “I think I was the first country artist to play Bass Hall. There is a lot of western heritage in Fort Worth, but they didn’t want to have country or pop artists play there. I went in and met with them and told them what the Ball was all about. The Cowboys Christmas Ball is now booked nearly every year at Bass Hall.”

Murphey has expanded his Christmas tour into two formats. One is the Cowboy Christmas Ball and the other is Cowboy Christmas concerts. “We have videos playing behind us on a giant screen showing people dancing to the old Cowboy music. The last two years I added a dance troupe, like the ones who used to play at the Grand Ole Opry. While we are playing these original country dances, they are dressed in the costumes of that era and dancing on stage with the band.”

The dancers are coordinated by Sharon Guli, whose husband Michael is world famous for making costumes for movies and television, including the current series Yellowstone. She has the dancers mixing both modern country dancing all the way back to the frontier and the time of the cowboys. Guli and the other dancers make their own costumes for the shows.

“We say we do 150 years of cowboy music and dancing at these shows,” Murphey says. “We are now doing every era of country dancing; polkas, waltzes, the Schottische and 1890-era ragtime music. One of our original songs, ‘Cowboy Logic,’ is the same beat as ragtime music. We now have a hammered dulcimer player and of course a fiddler in the band. We can transition from the country rock band from my era of the Cosmic Cowboy to electric guitar and acoustic guitar like the bluegrass bands.”

Once the Cowboy Christmas Ball tour is over and the holidays are past, Murphey will continue working on two projects that are very dear to him. His most famous song, “Wildfire,” is being made into a movie for young adults in which he will star as well as be the music director. “It’s a very compelling movie that has a good message to it,” Murphey says. He and his son, Ryan, have co-written an album, “Road Beyond The View,” which is currently available only for pre-orders through the website www.ridingwildfire.com.  It will be available through regular outlets in 2022. 

Tour Dates For Cowboy Christmas Ball

December 3-4    Lubbock, Texas

December 6        Mt. Pleasant, Texas

December 10     Grand Prairie, Texas

December 11     Odessa, Texas

December 16     Anson, Texas

December 17     Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

December 18     Austin, Texas