High Desert Cowboy

Mark Merryman keeps it real in the face of conspicuous Californication.

At one point not too long ago, the population of the Front Range expanded. Tech complexes and subdivisions consumed open space, while McMansions replaced ponderosa pines as the tallest species in the foothills. Evergreens and pristine land morphed into what newspapers morbidly dubbed "Sprawlorado."

Mark Merryman is one long-suffering Colorado lifer who has witnessed this most recent buildup of the region. Having arrived in the metro area from Pennsylvania 45 years ago, as an infant, Merryman (now of Littleton) was plunked down in Morrison, where he learned about pretty surroundings, large outdoor music venues and population spikes.

"I feel like the Indians must have when the white man came," he says when asked about changes in his adopted state. "I feel like, 'Yeah this was a cool place...before everyone moved here. In 1969 you could see the lights of Aurora from Denver. Now it's one seamless sprawl. Eventually it'll reach all the way down to Pueblo and up to Wyoming. When I first started noticing the boom, I remember thinking, 'Man, where's all the water for this gonna come from?'"

If Merryman's vision of the future of the Front Range does come to fruition, he'll no doubt chronicle it in his songs. He does a lot of environmental musing through music, and with his groups FretKnot and RC Project, he pens original songs that touch on earthy and countrified themes.

"The information age is overwhelming," he says. "We need music to bring us back to the grass roots and get our heads in the clouds and our feet on the ground. Music can be really good medicine, but you have to listen to get the benefit of a song. To paraphrase Wynton Marsalis: 'Art does not come to you; you have to come to it. And when you do, you can leave with something you did not have before.' Or as the director of career development at the Berklee School of Music, Peter Spellman, once said, 'Our stock in trade is selling short-term access to altered states of consciousness.'"

Such lofty thinking is common for Merryman, the son of a preacher, who makes an annual trip to the canyonlands of Colorado; during a brief retreat, he and a die-hard group of like-minded musicians and friends enjoy the pristine environs, take in the mellow vibes and play music all night around glowing campfires.

"It's a magical experience," he enthuses. "We do it on BLM land far off the beaten path. I love the high desert and that red-rock country. My dad, Ron, is a theologian, teacher and minister. From him, I've gotten got an appreciation for the spiritual nature of life, through his teachings and our fishing and hunting trips. I also learned from him the difference between absolute truth and relative truth. Life has taught me that you must know both."

Absolute or relative, one thing Merryman knows for sure is how to construct a catchy tune. In 2000, FretKnot, his acoustic outfit, released a self-titled CD that was well received by the bluegrass community. Some songs from the album gained regular rotation on listener-sponsored radio stations, including Boulder's KGNU and frequencies in the Durango area. One track, "Where the Earth Is Still," is a paean to the natural beauty of the mountains and the peace found therein. The song's lyrics, set to a lilting bluegrass accompaniment, evoke subject matter reminiscent of John Denver and Tim O'Brien compositions: "Tall pine trees tower over my head/And my mind gets quiet and my soul gets fed/Mountain so high, valley so low, play a little tune on the old banjo/Watch the sun set in the Western sky, as the moon and stars light up the night/Well I been to the city till I had my fill, now I'm up on the mountain, where it's still."

Merryman knows it isn't always still on the mountain, particularly in the summer months, when concerts are common in the high country. He credits his experiences in the campgrounds at various music gatherings, such as the now large and legendary Telluride Bluegrass Festival, as having helped spur his interest in songwriting and performing.

"It's great that organizations such as Planet Bluegrass figured out a way to turn their events into a good business, but that just makes me appreciate the smaller, more intimate festivals more," he says. "I remember when I first saw folks picking in the campground [at Telluride]; I was blown away. I decided that 'I wanna learn to pick like 'at!' Many of those people became friends over the years and have gone on to very successful groups, such as Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident.

"One of the greatest things about bluegrass is the community, especially in Colorado," he adds. "With all the pickin' around the fires and the social thing, the kids see it and love it, and it helps perpetuate the whole scene."

Inspiration for Merryman's songs also comes from other non-festival excursions to the deserts and mountains, when, he says, words and music flow into his head.

"Through my songwriting, I try to give people a glimpse of the colors I experience," he says. "I wrote 'Where the Earth Is Still' in my truck. I was up in Georgetown doing a freelance gig, which consisted of playing guitar in a Civil War re-enactment band. It was a few summers ago, and it rained a lot that summer, so between sessions I was just sitting in the cab looking at the trees and the misty clouds, and the song just came tumbling out. The mountains are my church and the place where my spirit feels most free."

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