Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cowboy Vs. Cowboy

I recently received new discs from Ian Tyson and Michael Martin Murphey, and listening to them amounted to something of a cowboy music duel.
Tyson made a name for himself during the Sixties folk boom as one half of Ian & Sylvia, who were best known for the popular tune “Four Strong Winds” (and have been called the source for the characters Mitch and Mickey in Christopher Guest affectionate folk parody A Mighty Wind).
However, in recent years, he saddled up with cowboy music. In fact, earlier this year, he received a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Cowboy Poetry Gathering. His new disc Yellowhead To Yellowstone And Other Love Stories ( continues along this same western path. There are songs about cowboys, horses and wild wolves. Even the tunes about contemporary California (“Blaino’s Song”) and hockey commentator Don Cherry (“My Cherry Colored Rose”) sound like tales of the Old West.
The major change here is the change in Tyson’s voice, which sounds rather ravished due to an apparently permanent singing injury. While he affects a nice croon on “Lioness”, his hoarse vocals are something of a distraction and limit his disc’s appeal to hardcore Western music buffs.
Michael Martin Murphey is another long-time man of the West. A Western Music Association Hall of Famer, he has been called the top selling cowboy music singer. On his latest effort, Buckeroo Blue Grass (, he gives his catalog a bluegrass makeover (as the title implies). It’s actually not a big stretch but he does it effortlessly. Helping him sow his bluegrass oats here are such top players as Ronnie McCoury, Rhonda Vincent, Sam Bush and Rob Ickes.
Although the disc doesn’t include this biggest hit, 1975’s chart topper “Wildfire,” it does include a fine rendition of “What I Am Doing Hanging Around”, a song you might recognize from the Monkees. Other numbers that stand out are “Carolina In The Pines” and set opener “Lone Cowboy.”
If you put these two discs in a musical duel, I think Murphey would win the showdown. His singing has a warmer, friendlier quality than Tyson’s admittedly restricted vocals. Moreover, the enthusiastic bluegrass picking is quite contagious and his disc offers a nice balance of “up songs and sad songs” (to quote Murphey himself).
Song to seek out: “What Am I Doing Hanging Around” from Michael Martin Murphey.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lovin' Louvin

this is what I had to say in Cleveland Scene magazine about Charlie Louvin's upcoming show there:
Charlie Louvin

What do you call a musician who has back-to-back Grammy nominations, released two records last year and goes from Beachland opening act to headliner in a matter of months? A hot up-and-coming star? Well, it's actually octogenarian Charlie Louvin. But this living legend has been living it up the last of couple years. For his Grammy-nominated 2007 self-titled disc, he enlisted the likes of George Jones, Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy. Last year, he turned out the stark Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs, as well as the stirring gospel-filled Steps To Heaven (which earned another Grammy nom). Louvin's career dates back to the 1940s when he started performing with his brother Ira. The Louvin Brothers were among country music's top brother acts during the late '50s and early '60s. Following Ira's death in 1965, Charlie soldiered on and is now experiencing a career resurgence. On recent albums, Louvin sings about damnation and redemption in a worldly wise voice that might not be a strong as it once was, but it's still stirring and inspiring. Not many performers make vital music in their 80s, but Louvin has always been a rare breed. JP & the Chatfield Boys open at 8 p.m. at the Beachland Tavern (15711 Waterloo Rd., 216.383.1124). Tickets: $15. - Michael Berick

Friday, February 6, 2009

Cars - yes, really about the band.

I was listening to the car radio last night and tuned into an LA station that goes by the name, The Sound. I don't listen enough to summarize the Sound's sound but it seems to a mix of modern oldies and contemporaries tunes that delve a bit beyond the obvious. I heard Nick Lowe's "Cruel to be Kind" followed by Tom Petty's "Listen To Her Heart". Then they played the Cars' "Best Friends Girl," which I hadn't heard in ages. Granted. I had the Cars debut right when it came out. Had it on 8 Track, in fact. It was just before New Wave became a fashionable term and these guys (including Nick Lowe) were treated as strange punk rockers by the great Midwest. Anyway, I haven't listened much to the Cars over the intervening years and sort of chuckled/scoffed with the song came on. But I did come away appreciating their craftsmanship more afterward. My younger ears never picked up on the "96 Tears"-style keyboard line that weaves through the song nor the twangy guitar picking that make me think of Chet Atkins, and I never associated the Cars and Chet Atkins together before. The next song was "Wonderwall" by Oasis, which made me think of the Beatles. That had been done before.