Album Review: Michael Martin Murphey – Buckaroo Blue Grass
On 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.
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