Album Review: Michael Martin Murphey – Buckaroo Blue Grass

Juli Thanki | February 16th, 2009

Michael Martin Murphey - Buckaroo Blue GrassOn the spectrum of American acoustic roots music, bluegrass and western are at opposite ends not only due to their subject matter (flop-eared mules versus strawberry roans, coalmines versus campfires) but also because of the physical separation and geographical differences between the two region-specific genres. With Buckaroo Blue Grass, Michael Martin Murphey does his part to help bridge the gap by transforming some of his biggest C&W hits into bluegrass songs. Known throughout his thirty-seven year recording career as a singer of cowboy songs, any attempt Murphey would have made to reinvent himself as a through-and-through bluegrasser with songs about mountain hollers and mining would have rung utterly false, and likely would have caused fans of both genres to turn away.

By re-recording his earlier work with acoustic arrangements, Murphey is able to perform bluegrass with a western attitude, making for an enjoyable listening experience for fans of both styles, though militant purists may balk at the album’s genre-bending. Adding legitimacy to Murphey’s new musical endeavor is his backing band, which includes some of bluegrass’ biggest guns, such as Ronnie McCoury, Charlie Cushman and Sam Bush, while Rhonda Vincent provides sweet harmony vocals on “Lost River.” The high lonesome sound of bluegrass music tends to be an acquired taste for those who haven’t grown up with the music, but for those who don’t enjoy Monroesque tenors, have no fear: Murphey’s smooth voice never once ventures into falsetto.

Murphey is often ignored in discussions of country music songwriters, which is a shame because he’s extremely talented, having written hits for Flatt & Scruggs, Bobbie Gentry, and one of the best songwriters to ever pick up a pen, Roger Miller. Murphey is the sole songwriter of the classic songs on Buckaroo Blue Grass, as well as the album’s two new originals, “Lone Cowboy,” whose western title belies its straight-up bluegrass sound, and “Close to the Land,” which is currently serving as the theme song for RFD-TV’s America’s Heartland. Murphey’s songwriting abilities have inspired numerous artists to cover his work, including bluegrassers Doyle Lawson and the Country Gentlemen, both of whom have tackled “Carolina in the Pines.” Unfortunately, both of those covers are better than the version of “Carolina in the Pines” on Buckaroo Blue Grass. Luckily, Murphey’s newest version of the song is miles better than his 1975 countrypolitan original, so it’s not a complete loss.

All of the songs Murphey has redone for this album are much improved from their original versions, which leaned more towards pop than a traditional acoustic cowboy sound. While there’s not a bad song on Buckaroo Blue Grass, the strongest song by far is the re-recording of “Fiddlin’ Man,” an infectious, goofy song about ladies and their inability to resist the most roguish of all musicians.

Perhaps the album’s strongest point is that it avoids the biggest song of Murphey’s career, the crossover hit “Wildfire.” By focusing on some of his lesser-known work, Murphey is able to separate himself from his country-pop leanings in the late 1970s and 1980s, and hopefully will be able to retain old fans and lure in new listeners with his rustic song arrangements, skillful lyrics, and flawless voice.

Overall, Buckaroo Blue Grass is an above average album which allows Murphey to experiment with different musical genres while avoiding the possible alienation of his longtime C&W fans as well as accusations of poseurdom by fans of traditional bluegrass.

3.5 Stars

  1. Rick
    February 16, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    I can understand why Michael would be motivated to make this album to get out of his cowboy music corral, but I really wonder who it would appeal to? Genre purists on both the cowboy and bluegrass sides of the fence don’t take kindly to cross pollination. This album may spark potential listener interest, but how many will be motivated to pay for it? Hmmm..

    Speaking of Michael Martin Murphey (can we just call him 3M?) his vintage “Cowboy Songs Vol. 1″ CD contains some wonderful songs but the sound quality on some cuts makes them almost unlistenable. Back in the 80’s the use of first generation Sony digital studio recorders and other early digital gear often resulted in a hard and harsh “digital sound” that was noticeable on many 80’s country music CD’s. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “State of the Heart” was a clear example, but nothing came close to 3M’s “Cowboy Songs” in this regard as some songs are painful to listen to on good sound gear. My personal “Cowboy Songs” CD is a fist run pressing, so I don’t know if they ever cleaned it up by re-mastering the tracks as it was desperately needed! My ears hurt just thinking about listening to “Tying Knots In The Devil’s Tail”.

  2. idlewildsouth
    February 16, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Rick, perhaps its nostalgia and remembering my bullriding dad walking through the grocery store whistling “The Yellow Rose Of Texas”, but I love that album. Of course, when I first heard this album I was 7 years old, so I probably didnt notice the poor recording.

    Juli, I love the review. I almost bought this album saturday evening, but decided Id go with the Charlie Daniels Band reissue of the “Whiskey” album. Figure I cant go wrong with some CDB. But thanks to this glowing review, ill be sure to buy it next chance I get.

  3. Paul W Dennis
    February 17, 2009 at 3:28 am

    This album is okay but I prefer MMM in a country setting rather than bluegrass. “Fiddlin’Man” and “Cherokee Fiddle” (the old Johnny Lee hit) are both excellent but I much preferred the original of “Carolina in the Pines.”

  4. Jim Malec
    February 17, 2009 at 8:45 am

    I agree with most of your points in this review, Juli, but I think you’re missing one important issue–this record is boring to listen to.

    Music can be good without being interesting, and outside the novelty favor of MMM doing bluegrass, I can’t imagine ever needing to hear this. In my opinion, it’s middling in the worst way–in that it asks for no particular response from its listeners. It’s hard to hate it and hard to love it.

  5. Juli
    February 17, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Jim, I see your points, but to me the enjoyment factor of this record comes from hearing Murphey’s voice and excellent songwriting without the distraction of what is, in my opinion, the subpar musical arrangements of his countrypolitan stuff. You can’t get much better than having Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, and Ronnie McCoury as your backup band.

    IMO, his earlier work didn’t ask for much response from its listeners, aside from the general idea that being a cowboy is pretty awesome. But what MMM is doing with Buckaroo Blue Grass is portraying a personal relationship with a land that is in the process of disappearing, if not already gone. Maybe it’s not exceptional or mindblowing, but I think it’s something worth hearing.

  6. Brady Vercher
    February 17, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Good review, Juli. I agree with pretty much everything you said, including the rating. “Fiddlin’ Man” has always been one of my favorites and it works well in this setting.

  7. JC
    February 17, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    I saw MMM play an acoustic show at an old vaudville theater last year. Maybe it’s my age showing, but here’s a man who’s all hat and all cattle–longhorns at that. If this album brings that show a little closer to home, I may have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

  8. Hubba
    March 23, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    I have seen MMM twice now, and he’s a fine singer and performer, and an amazing songwriter.
    I’ll have to give this a listen

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