march 2009

The Land Remembers

By David McGee

Michael Martin Murphey: To saddle up with Murph is to come in closer touch with enduring truths.

Michael Martin Murphey
Rural Rhythm

Just because Michael Martin Murphey's "Wildfire" shows up on those execrable Easy Rock collections advertised on TV, don't begrudge one of the finest songwriters of his generation penning a '70s landmark hit that just happens to be recycled with a bunch of other stuff you can only endure in a Quaalude haze. (You know the commercial? The one that assaults us with the dreadful apparition of Kenny Loggins spewing out "This Is It"?) "Wildfire," the Murph song in question, was always misunderstood as a soft-rock ballad by a critical establishment oblivious to its storyline being inspired by the ghost horse of Native American legend and conveniently ignoring the lyrics' suggestion of a mystical connection between the singer and the freedom the horse represented.

Murph went on from "Wildfire" to become one of the '80s' and early '90s' top country balladeers before ditching the glitz for the cowboy life. In the past two decades, no musical artist has done more to chronicle, preserve and further the cowboy culture than Michael Martin Murphey. In addition to recording a raft of top-notch albums of cowboy music—his own and that of other writers (one of which, Cowboy Songs, went gold!)—in 1986 he founded the grand celebration of the cowboy way known as WestFest and has released three DVDs chronicling his love of the cowboy life and ethos, which goes hand-in-hand with his love of the land. For years he had a working ranch near Taos, New Mexico, and now he's up in Wisconsin, a partner in the Rocking 3M Ranch, which devotes much of its energy to saving the disappearing Plains. This is a good man, a mighty good man, as Louis L'Amour would observe.

All of which is but prelude and irrelevant to Murph's new album, Buckaroo Blue Grass, but sometimes a stand must be made: "Wildfire" is an amazing song, but MMM has matched and surpassed it in succeeding years. Let the Easy Rock folk have all of him they want, but the type of work represented here has too often been overlooked or underestimated critically, even as his good deeds and stewardship on behalf of the land, its citizens and its history hasn't merited the breathless attention Britney gets when she goes out sans underwear. (Okay, maybe not a good example, but you get the drift.) The point is, Murph kicks ass, and he does it every day of his life, not by talking and singing about a vanishing lifestyle and the rape of the Plains, but by planting his feet in the soil and trying to change things for the better before it's too late. Even if all this were not so, Buckaroo Blue Grass would still be a terrific, maybe even—dare it be said?—great album, Murph is at his very best as a singer with a little huskier but still affecting tenor, as a first-drawer songwriter and resolute guiding light, accompanied by some of the finest musicians on the planet: Ronnie McCoury, for God's sake; Sam Bush, Andy Leftwich, Rob Ickes, Charlie Cushman, Pat Flynn, Craig Nelson, his own son (and producer) Ryan, and, for a beautiful, heart tugging moment on the exquisite lament, "Lost River," the signature keening harmony voice of, for God's sake, Rhonda Vincent.

Buckaroo Blue Grass advances the dominant themes of Murph's life in some songs from his past revisited (some of which he had previously reconsidered on 2001's Playing Favorites, herein given a new whirl altogether), some from his "Cosmic Cowboy" days in Austin in the '70s to more recent fare originally crafted for his acoustic albums, plus two new songs that could hardly be more moving bookends to this stirring collection.

In the gently soaring "Wild Bird" he tiptoes into "Wildfire" territory, not with a ghost horse this time but with the wild bird of the title, injured and nursed back to good health by the singer (true story), who comes to feel the rara avis has healed him in turn, their bond unbroken even as the bird, flight restored, returns to its mountain perch. The comforting atmosphere is lent added presence by the sound of Ronnie McCoury's fluttering mandolin runs, an aural evocation of the bird's fluttering wings, and Charlie Cushman's high-pitched banjo rolls. The spiritual connection to the land and to nature—and thus to God—a constant in this artist's work—reoccurs in a fine, lilting rendition of a Murphey song John Denver made famous, "Boy From the Country." Murph originally recorded it in a slightly more aggressive arrangement on his acclaimed 1972 long player, Geronimo's Cadillac, but this backwoods treatment is flecked with winsome interjections from Ickes on dobro, Bush on mandolin, Leftwich on fiddle, and resonant acoustic guitar flourishes provided by Pat Flynn, all buttressing a measured, plaintive Murph vocal, harmonized by his son Ryan. Though his focus hasn't changed much from 1972, his wry reading of the lyric, "He tried to tell us/That we should love the land/We just turned our heads and laughed/You see, we did not understand," suggests he knows how far he's evolved in his own affection for the natural world. "Carolina In the Pines," one of Murph's best known (and most covered) songs, a hit for him in 1975, and memorably interpreted by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver in '85, intertwines the love for a woman with a memory inextricably linked to nature, "far above the timberline," and it's rendered with the same uplift the singer expresses from the heart in recalling the girl of his dreams, with Ickes's exuberant dobro lines and McCoury's fleet mandolin commentary juicing up the spirited atmosphere. For pure, unalloyed fun, he surprises with the inclusion of a brisk rendition of "What Am I Doing Hanging Around," one of the songs that put him on the map when the Monkees included a rousing country-inflected version of it on their 1967 album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., with Michael Nesmith delivering a hearty lead vocal and Doug Dillard adding banjo. Murph's version here takes it to bluegrass territory, with a toe-tapping arrangement, McCoury and Ickes adding lightning bolts of mandolin and dobro, and Leftwich tearing through on fiddle, as Murph gives the lyrics a delightfully playful reading, with plenty of warmth to go around.

New songs clearly close to the artist's heart open and close the album. "Lone Cowboy" gets things going with a sprightly, autobiographical account of a one man "with my own campfire song" carrying the torch for the cowboy life, writing, singing, going "everywhere west...acting about half my own age." Contrasting with the buoyant spirit of "Lone Cowboy," the thoughtfully rendered closing number, "Close To The Land (America's Heartland)," reflects on an aging cowboy, showing the wear of his years but still fighting the good fight, "living close to the land," rising with every sunup to toil; and Murph, knowing whereof he speaks, tips his Stetson to the lady of house, up at the break of day, "pulling weeds and patching jeans/keeping faith when times are lean/she does a man's work and a woman's too." Near the end he wraps up his philosophy neatly in the lyric, "Unless you've touched this earth/planted seeds/or given birth/the human heart can never come of age." He sees this story in the lives of all the farmers and cowboys he encounters, and no other contemporary artist has documented their unvanquished dignity with such penetrating sensitivity and insight as Murph, who has the gift of music at his command and so embeds his sentiments in a warm melody, sings it straight from the heart without melodrama, and lets his stellar accompanists (in this instance, Mike Stidolph is contributing the evocative dobro solos) caress the vocal with nuanced support designed to enhance the plainspoken narrative and the singer's straightforward approach with concise, elegant grace notes.

In "Lone Cowboy" our man is "still riding like wildfire"—nice—"to find the next campfire" and vows he'll "never get old in my soul." And he hasn't. Buckaroo Blue Grass overflows with life, enough for many of us. To saddle up with Murph is to come in closer touch with enduring truths. The land, after all, remembers.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024