Defining the sound of Montana

“What is the Montana sound?” That was the question posed to me by one of our volunteers when I wrote down a question for Mike Murray when he came in to play us a The Left Ready tune from their new EP – Ghosts.

The exact question was, “You guys seem to be able to blend in the local Montana sound and put a modern indie rock twist on it. Is this on purpose?” It wasn’t a great question and I didn't have an answer to exactly what is the “Montana Sound”. We didn’t ask Mike the question.  I have since come to a sort of Supreme Court conclusion that, “I know it when I hear it.” In my opinion Mike Murray IS that sound. Darkly optimistic; a voice like the calm before a Montana winter storm just waiting to unleash its full fury.

Tumbleweed is Mike Murray’s third studio album, following International released in 2011, and Balance and Rhythm released in 2013. The first thing that struck me on Tumbleweed was how raw the album sounded. There isn’t a big studio auto-tune polish to the music and it’s better for it. The sound engineers got to sit back and enjoy the show.

What really drew me in is the calm restraint in Mike’s voice.  There is always a delicate balance as each quiet note wants to scream whether its anger, frustration, pain, regret, or pure joy. We can hear his face contort as he packs in the maximum amount of emotion into each syllable, note, and word without completely breaking down. Simply put this album will affect you.

The album starts out with the album-titled “Tumbleweed” an upbeat tale of traveling the country and how his heart is back with his family in Montana.  Declaring his joy and gratefulness upon returning home by singing, “…she waited for me, she waited for me, my brown eyed beauty waited for me!”

Mike talks about his doubts as a new father in “Audrey’s Song”, saying, “I did my best to be ready….now I’m stuck staring into the mirror and I’m not sure I like what I see.” And later confesses, “You’re  making me a better in to man, without ever saying a thing”..

On the song “The Road” speaks to a lot of people who end up in Montana running from something. Mike belts the lyrics, “Go on, go on and try. You can run, but you can’t hide. And you can pray, you can leave this whole thing up to faith. But one day you’re going to have to decide, just how you’re going to live your life.” It’s a story I share with many people in Montana who choose to come here to get away from something and are disappointed to learn that problems aren’t fixed by distance. Mike concludes, “This is a road that each man must drive.”

Following “The Road”, “Cold Cold World” tells a story of leaving home at the age of 18, “to the edge of the world, and nowhere in between”, and finding only a, “cold cold world”. Like the rugged, unforgiving and ultimately indifferent harshness of Montana, the real world does not care who you are. Near the middle of the song Brent Jameson lays out a masterful guitar solo while Mike gives us some hope telling us, “to keep your thoughts close to home, and stay with the ones you love…” before ending the track back where we started  painfully proclaiming, “all that I found is a cold cold world”.

Brent Jameson isn’t the only guest appearance on Tumbleweed, the album is truly a community effort with nearly all of the local big name musicians pitching in. Local legend John Dunnigan plays banjo.  Ryan Wickland plays the pedal steel guitar to add that country twang. Immensely talented and independently successful singers Nick Spear & Kevin Van Dort are limited to mere backup vocals on this album. Mike’s partner in crime Chris Krager adds some vocals and plays bass. Marco Forcone plays drums.  It’s no secret to those who lent their talents know there’s something special going on here. Not to mention with all the talent involved it would be hard to make a bad album.

The theme of loneliness prevails throughout Tumbleweed. Every Man For Himself begins with a catchy whistle and we think we are in for a catchy upbeat song. What we get is the solemn proclamation “When I was younger, I thought the world was on my side, I thought if I just believed, I could achieve anything I tried.”

On “Carry You Home”, Mike seems determined to carry all the burdens laid out in this album on his shoulders for those he loves. I can only speculate this was written as some sort of dairy that he wants his children to read. Seemingly telling them when the go out on that road, find that cold cold world, to see that it’s everyman for himself  and saying he will be there when they are ready to come back. That he will bear all the pain and disappointment of the world for them.

The album truly ends with “Never Flown This High”,(even though there is an alternate version of “Bury Me in Montana” afterwards) and is the perfect punctuation as we learn Mike’s true source of energy. “Never Flown This High” features Jessica Murray, Mike’s wife, who outshines Mike in this track. Mike told me they recorded the vocals at the same time in the same room which is not usually done. You can hear the smiles in both of their voices as they sing the lyrics right next to each other. This song is pure joy. It’s clear in this song that while Mike wants to protect his family and bear the world’s burdens he couldn’t do it without his wife.

So what is the “Montana Sound”? Mike Murray carries that quiet wisdom, that careful measurement of life that the speed of Montana gives you. Its part country, part blues, part rock, part mountain, and part big sky. It’s having traveled that road, seen the cold cold world, feeling like it’s every man for himself and having the big sky stare back at to tell you you’re wrong, that there is someone out there that wants to share that burden for you. And if that doesn't do it for you. I know it when I hear it. 

Tumbleweed can be purchased on iTunes or at one of Mike many shows. Check out the calendar at http://www.mikemurraytunes.com/#section-3 to see where Mike is playing next.

Tumbleweed is being played on Whitefish Community Radio. Tune-in!