High Desert Cowboy

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

FretKnot provides Merryman with a medium for channeling his musical epiphanies. The band, which has been together for more than ten years, includes a traditional bluegrass lineup: Merryman on vocals and guitar, Mark Epstein on banjo, Bruce Lites on fiddle, Kevin Yost on mandolin and Brad Smith on bass.

"Our songs are about things we've all experienced. But our experience is different than, say, Bill Monroe's, so you won't hear so much of that high-lonesome sound. We may be high in the Rockies, but we're really not that lonesome," he says, laughing.

"I think our best feature is the maturity of the musicians in the group," Merryman continues. "We have fun playing together. And we're also fortunate in that we know some great people in the music community. We had Butch Hause for our sound engineer. He was great in the studio and really instrumental in bringing the whole thing together. He really understands how to capture an acoustic performance, as is evident from his most recent project with Peter Rowan and Don Edwards [The High Lonesome Cowboy], which was nominated for a Grammy. We were also fortunate to have an extraordinary song writer, Benny Galloway, in the band at the time. Benny wrote a couple of the songs on the CD and has since written material recorded by Yonder Mountain String Band, Runaway Truck Ramp, White Lightning and others. Benny is one of my writing heroes. He's also a mentor, collaborator and fishing buddy."

Recently, Merryman has been moonlighting as a solo act, going it alone on stage with just his acoustic guitar. While doing so, he hopes to spend more time on his songwriting -- crafting his own style in the tradition of tunesmiths like Tim O'Brien, Townes Van Zandt, Chuck Pyle and John Prine. He is currently working on a new, as yet untitled, disc. (Desert West and The Eclectic Desert Cowboy Rides Again are contenders.)

"I call it 'eclectic desert cowboy music' because it expresses my deep love for the land in the West, including the Rockies and canyonlands," he says. "The eclectic part comes into play in that the music is the artistic expression of multi-dimensional realities. I have been playing around campfires all my life and try to capture some of that intimacy in the performance."

Not one to get mired in a single group or genre, Merryman also marks gig time with RC Project, a Latin- and jazz-influenced combo that has roots in the folky acoustic rock of the '60s and '70s. The group, which highlights the songs of his friend Robert Clousing, released a self-titled disc in 2001.

"I produced it in my home studio," he says. "The songs were written by Robert and arranged by me. In this jazzier project, I get to express sounds through my guitars that just don't fit into the bluegrass thing. Here, one note may cover a space that would have several notes in a bluegrass piece."

The RC Project release includes a talented roster of guests who form an odd kind of supergroup: Former Subdude John Magnie (keys and accordion), Ari Dvorin from Cabaret Diosa (saxophones), Roxane Staples (flute), John Merryman (Mark's son, of Cephalic Carnage, on drums), Geoff McClain (bass), Rashad Eggleston (cello), Bruce Lish (saxophone), Jim Craighead (violin), David Snyder (banjo and harmonica), Mark Hutchinson (mandolin) and Linda Malinski (backup vocals) are among the artists who play on the disc. The group currently performs as a four-piece, with Merryman and Clousing on guitar and vocals, Tom Ward on bass and Rich Spring on drums. And naturally, the band hosts guests on occasion.

"I think the secret to happiness is variety, and how can you perform if you are bored with your material?" Merryman asks. "With three groups, I don't have the chance to get bored. Every performance is something brand new."

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