december 2011


In A Quiet Way

By David McGee

Michael Martin Murphey
Rural Rhythm

Michael Martin Murphey's second collection of acoustic Christmas carols, first issued in 1999 on his own label and now reissued on his current label home, Rural Rhythm, is even more moving than his similarly titled 1991 collection. This time out he applies his warm, soothing tenor—and rarely has a voice seemed so perfectly suited and attuned to the Christmas season as Murph’s--to 13 standard tunes and carols, many recorded in the sanctity of the church he and his family attended at the time, St. James Episcopal, in Taos, NM, as well as at the Johnson Mesa Chapel in Raton, NM, and the Christ In the Desert Monastery in Abiqui, NM. The serenity Murphey had found in his personal and professional life after abandoning the commercial mainstream, where he experienced tremendous success as a country balladeer in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, to concentrate exclusively on cowboy songs and rural culture, is evident in the tranquility of the performances on this disc, from the graceful, unembellished vocals to the gentle ambiance sustained by Murphey's acoustic guitar buttressed by the warm purring of a turn-of-the-century pipe organ. "The arrangements are reflective of the sounds of a solitary minstrel, or a small group of friends and family singing in a tiny chapel or around the fireside," Murphey writes in his liner notes. So it is: Murph’s plaintive voice and gently picked/strummed acoustic guitar provide a striking setting—austere, reverential, expressive of wonder, joy and mystery—for hearing these classics with new ears, and an open heart. “In the Bleak Midwinter” is even more haunting in such a stark, unembroidered mise en scene; “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day,” buttressed by the steady hum of the aforementioned pipe organ, even more bracing in its affirmation of faith; “The First Noel” even more captivating in the way the softly strummed guitar provides a calming backdrop for the wondrous story, rendered low-key and straightforward by Murph, of the poor shepherds’ and three wise men awed by and following the star to the manger.

Michael Martin Murphey, ‘Cowboy Christmas Ball,’ with a cameo by Suzy Bogguss

In contrast, the celebration ensuing from the holy birth is captured in an energetic reading of “Joy To The World,” Murph frailing away on banjo as he spreads the good news, and the artist and cohorts get downright funky in delivering the rapturous “Go Tell It On the Mountain” with a solid, driving rhythmic pulse fueled by handclaps, guitar, tambourine and some zesty dobro sorties along the way. What can you say? At every step Murph makes all the right moves and delivers a Christmas message in a style all his own, as intimate in its concept and execution as it is expansive in its larger meaning.

This is a big-time album, in a quiet way.

Michael Martin Murphey’s Acoustic Christmas Carols: Cowboy Christmas II is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024