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Bluesman to perform tonight in Marmarth

DICKINSON - Veteran bluesman Willie Murphy says he's experienced western North Dakota before. But the memory is a tad hazy.

"I can remember getting out of the car with a bottle of Echo Springs whiskey in my hand and looking at the Badlands in the moonlight," he recalled. "It looked like an asphalt parking lot when they tear it up."

That strange trip, Murphy said, had to have happened sometime before 1979, the year he quit drinking. Now decades later, tonight to be exact, he'll find himself back in this part of the prairie playing a gig in Marmarth, a town better known for attracting dinosaur-digging paleontologists than gravelly voiced musicians.

So what would bring a piano player like Murphy from his home base in Minneapolis to perform in a remote town with a population of 140?

The answer, it seems, is art and ambiance.

Murphy's friend Digger Kohler, a filmmaker originally from Bis-marck, said Marmarth enchanted him during a visit not too long ago. It eventually occurred to Kohler that the town could be a fittingly off-the-wall setting for a documentary about the music of Murphy's band Cockroach Park, which includes bassist Mark Haynes and drummer Don "Pockets" Robertson.

"I just thought, 'Oh man, this would be nice to get really these great musicians out there in the middle of nowhere,'" Kohler said.

Under the direction of Kohler, a camera and sound crew plans to record the band as they play their eclectic style of rhythm and blues in Marmarth's historic Mystic Theatre.

Tonight won't be the first time Murphy has been the focus of a camera lens. Back in '71, he was a star in an artful film called "The Secret of Sleep." Murphy said that during filming in Santa Barbara, Calif., a banjo-playing hobo who just happened to be passing through town got cast as a bar-tender. In a fateful twist, that same hobo, who goes by the name Banjo Bill Wiley, may be opening for Murphy tonight. Wiley, who has apparently settled down in Mon-tana, heard about the concert through an e-mail Murphy had sent his fans. Go figure.

Murphy, who's played profes-sionally for 45 years, has seen his share of weirdness on the road. Traveling with his band Willie and the Bees in the late 70s and early 80s, Murphy played bars in Idaho and Montana where chicken wire protected the stage from errant beer bottles.

At a venue in Valley City, there was no wire cage, but there was an angry crowd that had been expect-ing country music. That night, a bottle whizzed past the band, Murphy said.

"We didn't know any country-western and apparently that's what they thought they were getting, and we were playing all Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and stuff like that," he said.

The reception Murphy received Thursday at a solo gig in Bismarck was decidedly warmer.

"I sold a couple of CDs, and I had a lot of girls talking to me," he said.

It just might be that Murphy's vigorous playing style is what's drawing the women. His pounding fingers have been known to send a poorly supported keyboard crash-ing to the floor.

"When I play solo, I try to make as much noise as I can to replicate that band sound," he said.

Murphy's brand of rhythm and blues has broad influences, including Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield, Elvis Presley and Robert Johnson. In 1969, a 21-year-old Murphy jammed with Sleepy John Esters, Phil Everly, Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins and Son House at the legendary Newport Folk Festival in Providence, R.I.

As far as tonight's concerned, Murphy said he and his entourage aren't sure what to expect at the 100-seat Mystic.

"We're all trying to figure whether anybody's going to come," he said. "In any case, were going to have a lot of fun."