(Rural Rhythm Records)
I’ve always been a fan of Michael Martin Murphey’s early work from the 1970’s. Songs like “Wildfire,” “Cherokee Fiddle,” “Flowing Free Forever,” and “Carolina In The Pines” have stayed in my music collection since then as the songs are evocative of a love of nature and the rewards of getting off the hard road. After scoring with the hit “What’s Forever For” and leaving the pop music scene in the 1980’s, Murphey ventured into his true love, the cowboy songs of the old west. His version of “Colorado Trail” on the “Cowboy Classics- Playing Favorites II” album is another favorite of mine. Now, Murphey has a recorded a new album called “Buckaroo Blue Grass” that brings us bluegrass versions of many of his hit songs as well as newer fare.
Murphey has had a hint of bluegrass in his music going back to the 70’s, with John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band providing the memorable banjo licks to the original version of “Carolina In The Pines.” But, there is also more of a connection between the cowboy music of the old west and bluegrass than one might think. Back in the day, a lot of the same fiddle tunes, songs and melodies that came from across the ocean a couple of centuries ago and filtered down through the generations in the Appalachian Mountains to become old time, bluegrass and country music also made their way west where they were adapted to a different culture and environment. On “Buckaroo Blue Grass,” Murphey effectively combines both worlds.
This project was the idea of Murphey’s son Ryan, who produced the album. With his Dad as executive producer and Rural Rhythm Records taking on the effort, the key component with this CD is the top notch bluegrass musicians brought in to play alongside Murphey. Many of the musicians are International Bluegrass Music Association ‘player of the year’ winners in their respective instrument categories and they include Sam Bush on mandolin, Rhonda Vincent on harmony vocals, Andy Leftwich on fiddle, Rob Ickes on Dobro and Ronnie McCoury on mandolin. The rest of the musicians include Ryan Murphey on guitar, the great banjo player Charlie Cushman, former New Grass Revival alumnus Pat Flynn on guitar, Mike Stidolph on mandolin, Craig Nelson on bass, David Davidson on fiddle, Clay Riness on mandolin, Matt Wilkes on bass and Michael Martin Murphey on lead vocals and guitar.
The album starts off in fine rollicking fashion with “Lone Cowboy,” a song that features Cushman’s banjo and Leftwich’s fiddle humming along as the lyrics tell us about what is cool about being out on the range. The next song is an unexpected surprise; a bluegrass version of a song made famous by The Monkees back in the 1960’s called “What Am I Doing Hanging Around.” Why does Michael Martin Murphey record it here? He wrote the song for the group when he was 19 years old. “Lost River” features superb harmony vocals by Rhonda Vincent.
There are three songs on here culled from Murphey’s 1970’s albums that are reworked wonderfully. “Carolina In The Pines” is a song whose melody and chorus is nothing short of majestic, and it includes an appreciation-of-nature love song within the lyrics that fits the music like a glove. It is a song that is ripe for an expanded arrangement that lets the instrumentalists do their thing, and that is exactly what happens here with McCoury, Cushman, Ickes and Leftwich all taking their turn for the last minute and 46 seconds until fade out.
“Cherokee Fiddle” is a natural fit, based on a true life Cherokee/Choctaw busker from Oklahoma named Scooter who played a train station in Durango, Colorado back in the day. “Wild Bird” is another patented song of nature by Murphey based on a broken winged sparrow that he brought back to health in the San Gabriel Mountains of California. In the liner notes, Murphey says, “When I let the sparrow out of his cage, he flew up to a branch and sat there looking at me, as if deciding whether to return to freedom or stay with me. Reluctantly, or so it seemed, he chose freedom and flew away. I asked Ronnie McCoury to make the mandolin sound like a little bird flitting from branch to branch, then hopping around on the ground. Ronnie looked at me like I was crazy, then proceeded to do exactly what I asked of him.”
This fine album ends with “Close To The Land (America’s Heartland),” a song written by Murphey and Robert Quist that became the theme song for the PBS show “America’s Heartland,” and it can also be heard often on one of my favorite cable and satellite TV stations, RFD-TV.