Michael Martin Murphey – Buckaroo Blue Grass II: Riding Song (Rural Rhythm, 2010)
Michael Martin Murphey’s 1975 single “Wildfire” was only the most public aspect of a long and rich career. He appeared on the country charts throughout the 1980s and subsequently developed a deep affinity for cowboy songs. Over the years he’s revisited key parts of his catalog, and in 2009 produced a volume of tunes reinterpreted in a bluegrass style. A year later he’s back with a second volume that sounds even more confident. His latest concentrates on songs from the early-to-mid 70s albums Geronimo’s Cadillac, Michael Murphey, Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir, Blue Sky-Night Thunder and Swans Against the Sun. He picks up “Tonight We Ride” and “Running Blood” from more recent albums and covers the Glaser Brothers’ “Running Gun.” The latter was originally recorded by Marty Robbins in 1959 for his legendary Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, closing the circle on Murphey’s love of western song.
Opening the disk with a hot-picked arrangement of 1975’s country-rock shuffle “Blue Sky Riding Song,” Murphey and his assembled musician friends serve notice that there are plenty of instrumental fireworks ahead. Pat Flynn on guitar, Ronny McCoury on mandolin, Charli Cushman on banjo and Andy Leftwich on fiddle warm up to a canter in 15 seconds flat, with Craig Nelson’s bass pushing Murphey’s exuberant vocals along the open trail. The instrumental break gives each player a chance to flash as the others provide progressive, ensemble backing. The group also turns it up for 1976’s “Renegade.” Though it’s lightened from its original country-rock sound, the acoustic instruments provide plenty of intensity as the players, including Rob Ickes on dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin, Charlie Cushman on banjo and Andy Leftwich on fiddle, stretch out for a length instrumental coda.
Murphey’s bluegrass reinterpretations provide a matured consideration of earlier performances, but also bring his songwriting into focus. Laying a bluegrass motif across twenty years of varied compositions highlights the consistent quality of his work. In some instances, like the Hot Club styling of 1985’s “Tonight We Ride,” the retooling is minimal, in others, such as the treatment of “Swans Against the Sun” and banjo lead of “Running Blood” the new arrangements bring out something new. Even the well-trod “Wildfire,” with its echoes of ‘70s soft rock, gets a fresh garland of twang and a powerful duet vocal from Carrie Hassler.
Murphey’s voice has gained an appealing edge over the years, and this set shows off both his adaptability as a performer and depth as a songwriter. His song notes show as much love for his material as does his singing; this is also evident in the feeling performances of songs he’s no doubt sung thousands of times. This is a great album for longtime fans, bluegrass listeners and all those top-40 ears that lost track of Murphey after “Carolina Pines” and “Renegade” slipped out of the Top 40 in the mid-70s.