High Desert Cowboy
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."
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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