Michael Martin Murphey

Tall Grass & Cool Water

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Michael Martin Murphey began his series of Cowboy Songs albums way back in 1989 while he was still with Warner Bros; he began his Buckaroo Blue Grass series in 2009 on the Rural Rhythm imprint. Both concepts come together on Tall Grass & Cool Water: Cowboy Songs VI/Buckaroo Blue Grass III. Some of the material here is surprising in that it wasn't recorded earlier, namely classic tunes by Bob Nolan including "Cool Water," "Way Out There," and "Blue Prairie." Most of the rest are age-old story songs that have been in the public domain for decades; and though Murphey plainly states this in his liner notes, he nonetheless claims songwriting credits on virtually every one of them, including, "The Santa Fe Trail" and "Springtime in the Rockies!" He gets away with it by rearranging these tunes, some of them radically. A stand-out cut is opener "Texas Cowboy," the stellar bluegrass stomper set to a Celtic melody, with some serious mandolin playing by Sam Bush, whining dobro by Andy Hall, soaring fiddle by Andy Leftwich, and the careening banjo of Johnny Cushman.The album's true treasure is the James Gang trilogy, which begins with "The Ballad of Cole Younger" set loosely and bluesily to the melody of "Rolling Home to Dear Old England," also known as the Irish Republican anthem "Kevin Barry." It's followed by the familiar "Ballad of Jesse James." Murphey properly adopts "'Rally Round the Flag," as its melody, but performs the song at Bill Monroe's bluegrass breakdown tempo. The trilogy ends with the album's finest moment: the stolidly modern Americana tune "Frank James Farewell," co-written by contemporary Nashville songwriters Hal Ketchum and Gary Burr. It reflects the other, lonesome side of all the boasting and Wild West exploits in the songs of the James Brothers' infamous legacy, told in the first person as the sun sets on him for the last time. This song is almost worth the album's purchase price. It should have ended the record since the two songs proceeding from its inspired performance feel anti-climactic. The traditional songs on Tall Grass & Cool Water, no matter their new arrangements, are respectful. That said, that's almost a fault because they can come off feeling stilted or overly nostalgic. It's likely appeal is only to those who've been fans of Murphey's preservationist, romantic look at the American West.

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