Michael Martin Murphey takes Carbondale stage | AspenTimes.com
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Michael Martin Murphey takes Carbondale stage

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoSinger-songwriter Michael Martin Murphey performs Saturday at Steve's Guitars in Carbondale.
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CARBONDALE – Michael Martin Murphey isn’t afraid to buck tradition. Several years ago, after he bought a ranch in Westby, in western Wisconsin, he began raising longhorn cattle there. His neighbors, all dairy farmers, spent time leaning over the fence to see this species, previously unheard-of in cheese country.

And Murphey doesn’t back down from breaking with his own past. Murphey may have had his pop-star moment with his huge 1975 hit “Wildfire,” but a legion of fans know him best as the foremost singer of cowboy songs – tunes about the Southwest, rich with horses, mountains and celebrations of rural life. Murphey has released five volumes of “Cowboy Songs” albums, and several “Cowboy Christmas” collections.

A few years ago, however, Murphey took account of how many of his songs had been covered by bluegrass acts. He decided to see for himself how his cowboy songs stood up to the bluegrass treatment. Quite well, as it turned out. His 2009 “Buckaroo Blue Grass” album – with Murphey backed by such pickers as Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury and Pat Flynn – earned a Grammy nomination in the bluegrass category. It was enough of a success that the record label asked for another round, and this week saw the release of “Buckaroo Blue Grass II – Riding Songs,” which followed the same formula.

“‘Buckaroo Blue Grass’ surpassed my wildest dreams, and that of the record company,” the 64-year-old said while driving from Vail to Cortez, on a swing through Colorado that brings him to Carbondale for a solo acoustic gig Saturday at Steve’s Guitars. “So the record company did what record companies always do – they said, ‘Can you do that again?'”

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Murphey doesn’t mind the new direction a bit. The only tradition he doesn’t care ever to do away with is his embrace of rural life. To him, bluegrass is similar to cowboy music – an offshoot of genuine country culture that respects the lines between the ranch and the city.

“Country music should be music that comes from the country, by people living in the country culture, that is about living in the country, the beauty of the country atmosphere. That’s why they called it country music,” said Murphey, who splits his time between Wisconsin (where his wife and stepdaughters are from), a ranch near Amarillo, Texas (dedicated to horse breeding and training), and a cabin retreat in Red River, N.M. (where he conditions horses at an altitude of 10,000 feet). “I love cowboy music and bluegrass for the same reasons: The subject matter is always redneck, always hillbilly, always about living in the country, being in the mountains. It’s not about urban; it’s about country.”

Still, in making the “Buckaroo Blue Grass” albums, Murphey realized that there were some differences between cowboy songs and bluegrass. Mostly, the bluegrass pickers – at least the A-list players he was working with – were on a higher level than he had become used to in the cowboy realm.

“I’ve always just been a songwriter,” said Murphey, whose bluegrass albums were produced by his son, Ryan. “Instrumentally, I’ve been so inspired by being around these people. These guys are such phenomenal players and so committed to what they do. It really made me go back to the guitar and the banjo.”

Murphey said it wasn’t cheap to hire the talent he used on the “Buckaroo” albums. But it has been worth it; he’s beginning to see himself as more than a writer.

“I actually did these albums so I could take lessons,” he said. “I paid a big price in the budget to see what these guys do. I am more of an instrumentalist now than I ever was before.”

Murphey’s next break with tradition may come on “Buckaroo Blue Grass III,” on which he plans to use drums. For progressive pickers, drums may not be a big deal, but for a rustic figure like Murphey, mixing bluegrass with percussion requires him to defend the practice a bit. He cautions that “Buckaroo Blue Grass III” – which will also serve as the sixth installment of “Cowboy Songs” – won’t feature “rock ‘n’ roll-style drums that overbear everything.” And he adds that “drums are an acoustic instrument.”

As Murphey began talking about “Wildfire” – how the version on “Buckaroo Blue Grass II” is the first all-acoustic take, and the first to feature duet vocals, with Carrie Hassler – the cell phone connection got garbled, then cut out completely. He had entered Vail Pass. The conversation resumed a few minutes later, and Murphey showed no disturbance over the technological glitch.

“I love driving through country where, once in a while, cell phones don’t work,” he said.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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