We all know about one-hit-wonders, but let’s think instead about a related phenomenon in popular music in which artists with a complex personality and a deep catalog of creativity become welded in mainstream awareness to a single song, a greatest hit. The citizen music fan may take one of three roads: 1) You have my attention so I’ll dive deep and take in the scope of your career. 2) I don’t like your hit so the rest of your music must sound be boring, so see ya later. And 3) I’ll hear your song on the radio forever and never think about anything else you might have done.
Most of America kind of lolls along acting like complacent Threes, but that’s a whole other issue. Instead, as we consider this week’s fabulous and diverse lineup at Roots, I want to talk about my own belated, humbling journey from being a Two to a One on the Western troubadour and formidable songwriter Michael Martin Murphey. We all know “Wildfire” in our bones. I heard it on FM radio growing up approximately 4,000 times and it was intriguing with its mythical imagery and the horse kicking down its stall and vanishing in a blizzard. But as I got all rootsy in my tastes, the 1970s twinkling acoustic guitar and smooth jazz drums estranged me from the record, and I grew to think of MMM as dude with a beard and a horse and a big hat who sang smooth pop with a touch of Western flavor.
I was so wrong for so long, but I got with it. Murphey hooked me with a really fine bluegrass album in 2009 that included standards and a tasty, banjo-rolling take on another of his hits “Carolina In The Pines.” Then I went back belatedly to his first LP Geronimo’s Cadillac from 1972 and found songs and feeling that fit right alongside that era’s work by Willie Nelson and Mickey Newbury. It’s an AllMusic.com five star album that I wish I’d known about decades ago. And what truly defines Murphey’s legacy is his huge catalog of cowboy and Western ballads. He’s interpreted classics like “Red River Valley” and written a new volume in the cowboy music canon. His voice has the tenderness we heard in “Wildfire” but also notes of the leather and campfire smoke he evokes in his songs. It became clear that Murphey had ridden that horse of a hit out to the wide open spaces where he could make himself exactly the kind of neo-traditionalist and heritage artist we love and admire. He has a brand new project called Red River Drifter, which I haven’t heard, but I want to. We’ve awaited his MCR debut for a long time.
And look at – nay, behold – what else we have to enjoy this week. Peter Cooper, who usually sings solo songs on our stage as our guest host, returns for a full set with his duo partner Eric Brace in a configuration I’ve loved for years. I go way back with Eric and his former DC based band Last Train Home, so he brings a sonic and song sensibility that clicks with mine. And as for Peter, when we worked together at the Tennessean in the early 2000s, I first thought his songwriting was a cool hobby. But I was wrong again! He’s been a driven, creative solo artist who’s worked closely with Brace as his record label guy (Red Beet) and duo partner. They’ve stretched their own talents while celebrating and embracing key influences like dobro master Mike Auldridge and steel guitar poet Lloyd Green. Now they’ve widened their hero worship to the whole legacy of DC roots music with C&O Canal, an album covering artists who shaped them, including The Seldom Scene, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and more. It’s enriching at so many levels. So will be their set.
I’ve lost count of how many things I love about HoneyHoney, the Los Angeles duo that blew our minds on a visit in 2012 at the Loveless. Their approachably hip and urbane rock and roll attitude led me to play their Lost Highway album Billy Jack on repeat for months, soaking up masterpiece songs like “Glad I’ve Done What I Did.” Lead singer Suzanne Santo is seductive and smoky and soulful, and that’s before we consider her skills on banjo and fiddle. Partner Ben Jaffe is a musical juggler who can play drums and maintain rhythm and lead guitar all at once. Last summer they released their third album (titled just 3) and it’s got the same inventiveness with even more personal and raw songwriting. For me lyrics are just a start. I crave zesty melodies, novel textures and harmonic sophistication, and HoneyHoney delivers all this at all times.
Last but certainly not least, because he’s freaking huge in stature and voice, is our mighty Northern neighbor Lee Harvey Osmond, the bass baritone singer from Blackie & The Rodeo Kings. Osmond, citizen of Hamilton, Ontario, has been widely known across Canada for years as a multi-faceted musician. In the photos promoting his new album Beautiful Scars, his hands and face are smeared with the medium from another of his art forms, painting. And the sounds within, produced by Cowboy Junkies veteran Michael Timmins, are fantastically adventurous, like a film noir spiked with mild hallucinogens. He told the Calgary Herald about it with his usual candor: “There are a lot of people out there claiming to be artists and songwriters and folksingers who are not quite honest about their craft. That’s why the title Beautiful Scars, is because at this time in my life I look back at 56 years of living and realize I’ve created a work of art, my own work of art, something that I couldn’t go back and make the same way again.”
So we look forward to being with you for a fascinating show where Murphey’s Law, not Murphy’s Law will apply: anything that can sound good will sound good.