Michael Martin Murphey,
Tall Grass & Cool Water
(Rural Rhythm, 2011)

Doing bluegrass versions of cowboy songs sounds about as appealing as a peanut butter and liver sandwich, but that's what Michael Martin Murphey is doing here and he's done it twice before on previous albums. (This one is subtitled, like a scorecard, Cowboy Songs VI, Buckaroo Bluegrass III.)

Strange as it may seem, for the most part, Murphey's continuing experiment works. This might be because he has been able to gather the prime movers of modern bluegrass, people like Sam Bush, Pat Flynn, Andy Leftwich and Ronnie McCroury, to help out. These pickers know what they're doing and Murphey, who has been recording since the '70s, has picked up a trick or two himself.

The centerpiece of the album is "The James Gang Trilogy" in which he sings the stories of Cole Younger and Jesse and Frank James in three beautiful songs. The ballads on the album work just fine dressed up in bluegrass arrangements, but a couple of the other songs on the disc just don't fit comfortably into bluegrass. "Texas Cowboy" and especially "Way Out There" sound as though Murphey and the band were trying to get through them as quickly as possible. The music on both is frenetic and hard driving, which is too much of a contrast to the mood of the lyrics. Instead of the musical tension he was after, Murphey winds up with a touch of chaos.

Still, Tall Grass & Cool Water dresses familiar tunes up in new clothes and makes you want to hang out with them again.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

3 September 2011

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