Singer Michael Murphey and Model Mary Maciukas, His Saddle Pal, Get on Like Wildfire

updated 08/20/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When I was growing up, if someone had predicted I would be married twice and then live with a New York model, I wouldn't have believed it," says Michael Murphey, 34, the cowboy singer best known for his hit single Wildfire. The model, azure-eyed Mary Maciukas, 27, says, "I had the usual fantasy of getting married and having children, but I never thought a mirror image of me could exist. That's what Michael is like."

Thus unsuspecting, the pair met in May 1978 when Maciukas took her visiting mother to hear country rocker Jonathan Edwards at the Bottom Line in New York. Murphey was also on the bill. "I didn't know who Michael was," she recalls, "but when I saw this blond-haired cowboy with the biggest grin, I said, 'Wait a minute. Something powerful is happening.' "

Maciukas was "real heavy into meditation and hadn't been with a man for over a year." Murphey was into an amicable divorce from his second wife, and immediately decided that Mary "was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. She wasn't dressed up real hotsy-totsy or looking to hook a man." He invited her back.

"I wasn't interested in getting involved," says Mary, "but the next day I couldn't get him out of my mind." After his midnight show was over, Murphey looked into the audience, waved and sprinted right past her to greet a friend. Mary was mortified. "I felt like a groupie," she sighs. "I thought, 'Well, this is it,' and tapped him on the shoulder. He hadn't even seen me."

At a late supper afterward she learned of his concern for American Indians. "It was such a coincidence," she says. "I was a Seminole in my last life. When he took me home we hugged and it was like being in one space—it was ohhhhhhh, no." She asked Michael in and introduced him to her mother. Says Mary, "She went right over and gave him a kiss and he said, 'Hi, Mom.' "

He courted Mary by phone from his home in Bailey, Colo. until August. "I didn't want to see her until the divorce was over," Michael says. Then he went to L.A. to cut his eighth album, Peaks Valleys Honkey-Tonks & Alleys, and she followed. "Whatever was going to happen would," says Maciukas, "and we had to let it."

They have rarely been apart since and make no effort to hide their mutual attraction. Michael once bussed Mary in a dentist's waiting room in Beverly Hills. He recalls, "One of the patients said, 'That's the most disgusting thing I've ever seen.' I said, 'Hey man, if I want to kiss my lady in public that's what I'm going to do.' "

Murphey tours for three months every fall and spring (60 cities and 30,000 miles) while Maciukas works out of the Wilhelmina agency in New York. They still manage frequent retreats to the boxlike hacienda they rent on the sage-strewn plains of Taos, N.Mex. Maciukas also visits Michael on tour, where his band calls her the "Fairy Road Mother." When she's around, Michael usually sticks to a regimen of vegetarian meals and mineral water.

Maciukas has been a vegetarian.—and serious meditator—since she met Swami Shyam, an Indian guru, eight years ago in Montreal. She grew up there in a Catholic family, second of seven daughters of a custom tailor. (The name, pronounced muh-CHEW-kuss, is Lithuanian.) As a girl, she was a tomboy with braces, but later took a modeling course and soon was appearing in local ads. That led her to try New York.

She refused to wear makeup at interviews ("go-sees," in the model business) and, she says, "They thought I was a space cadet." In hopes of landing more jobs, she went to Paris for six months, where she made a reputation on the covers of Marie-Claire and Elle. "I returned to New York and people thought I was some hot new model," she laughs.

With a six-figure income, Maciukas could afford to travel, and had visited a Himalayan ashram only a few months before she met Murphey. Michael is a Texan whose father, an accountant, now keeps the singer's books.

Murphey developed his talent in Dallas, where he had a local TV show at age 17. In 1965 he moved to L.A. and for five years studied literature at UCLA while playing musical dates with such unknowns as Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. Moving to Austin in 1970, he buddied around with Jerry Jeff Walker and, later, Willie Nelson. ("He hangs out with lots of crazies, but he's an oddly spiritual man," Murphey says.) He had already cut three albums by the time Wildfire sold two million copies in 1975. Though his Geronimo's Cadillac and Cosmic Cowboy were popular and his version of Chain Gang sold well as a single this year, he still hears Wildfire played most often—"It's like a child that grew up and left home."

Each of his two marriages lasted five years. His son, Ryan, 9, lives in Austin with first wife Diana. She has met Maciukas and they all get along. Murphey also supports a program started by second wife Caroline to introduce emotionally disturbed children to the Colorado wilderness.

"I always thought common interests were enough to keep two people together," says Murphey. "Now I know it's more mystical—something closer to what we call love." He and Maciukas are engaged, but have not set a date. "We're planning to get married because we're that committed," says Michael, "but we're doing it with caution."

A friend, Taos potter Charles Collins, observes, "Maciukas and Michael are both very striving, spiritual people. The happiness and love that they bring each other forms a spiritual union."

Nevertheless, there are petty annoyances. At first Maciukas found herself toting her own luggage on their travels. "Finally I said, 'Well, Michael, do you ever offer to carry the bags?' He was so afraid to take charge." But then, she admits, "If not working, I tend to wear old blue jeans and no makeup. He calls me a ragamuffin, especially if we're in a city where he's performing." Explains Michael, "I don't want to walk into a restaurant and have people think she's a groupie. I want her to be respected."

In Taos their day begins with meditation. Afterward, while Michael writes his nature-inspired lyrics, Mary coddles the herb garden. They jog on summer mornings and ski each winter afternoon. Michael's son Ryan and Mary's only brother, John, 12, visit on holidays, and the couple also indulges in vegetarian Tex-Mex cuisine, reading Tolkien and Indian spirituals and throwing pots at Collins' kiln. In the evening they saddle up their borrowed Appaloosa, Chester, and amble into the valley to watch the setting sun light up the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

"Sometimes at night I'll get the itch to pick," Murphey admits, "and I'll say, 'Honey, I've got to go to the honkey-tonk and play.' Now some women might think, 'He wants to leave me,' but Mary's not that way. She pushes me out the door." He grins, "It makes me feel good about her."

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