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.

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