Even before he got into his songs with the Utah Symphony Friday in Symphony Hall, Michael Martin Murphey mentioned that his concert with them last year was, for him, "the pinnacle of my life in music." I wonder what he will say of this year's edition, then, because to my way of thinking it was better still.
For one thing there was less talk. Last time it seemed as though every song had a story, but this time around he pretty much let the music tell its own story.Also, if memory serves, the program was a bit more varied, with a few more up-tempo numbers between the softish country/pop that has become his trademark. Were that not enough, he even put in a plug for the classics, allowing as how a little crossover might be good for both sides of the fence.
No argument there. I have to say, though, that even on his side he seems something of a crossover artist to me. At least this is about as slick and smooth a "country" sound as any I know, with none of the heartwrench of Hank or the grit of Johnny, or even the quiet ache of Willie.
Even when the words are angry, as in "Sacred Heart" (with its plea for illegal aliens), the music is soothing, almost always arching easily to a high-lying climax. And that's true even when there's a little more motor energy, as in "Tonight We Ride."
But again, this time out it made for an agreeable mix, thanks in no small part to the high-power backup he got from the orchestra under associate conductor Christopher Wilkins. And I will say this for Murphey - he really does perform with the orchestra, with an interaction some of our more "legitimate" guests would do well to emulate.
The themes of his songs must be familiar by now: lost love ("Crystal"), the security of the family ("Long Line of Love") and a preoccupation with nature and the environment that might be even a bit stronger than it is. which is to say that, for all his sincerity, he really doesn't have too much more to say on the subject of moonlight and water than the great songsmiths of the '30s and '40s - they just didn't wear it as a badge.
"River of Time," for example - the title song of his new album - isn't so much about a river as it is about hurt feelings, yet he made a point of relating it to the anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. And although "Wildfire," his hymn to a legendary wild mustang, is a nice song, I'm not sure what it really says about the vanishing prairie, or even horses per se.
More interesting - and I expect this is a minority view - is when he himself acknowledges the crossed musical lines, as in "I'm Gonna Miss You, Girl" - just this side of late-'50s rockabilly - or the Johnny-Ray-style self-pity of "Disenchanted." Again, though, there is no mistaking the gentle Murphey arch.
Just the same, I found the amplification almost ear-shattering at times (particularly in the second half). Happily that did not dilute the charm of an encore duet with son Ryan - their current hit, "Talkin' to the Wrong Man." Nor were Murphey and his band - including a banjo player in tux and tennis shoes - any less professional than the symphony.
Even Richard Hayman's "Pops Hoedown," with which the orchestra began the evening, seemed to have more life than usual - something that carried over into Murphey's own impromptu hoedown at the end of a pairing of "Cherokee Fiddle" and "The Devil's Dream."
Filling out the second half was a similarly committed performance of Henry Wolking's "Black Dragon Canyon," quickly becoming a Utah Symphony pops standard of sorts. Here its jazzy exuberance breathed big-band class from first to last. Saturday it is to be replaced at Deer Valley by yet another Wolking premiere, a Pat Metheny compilation - not something one would have readily associated with this orchestra. But a year ago who wouldn't have said the same of Michael Martin Murphey?