Gary McMahan,
Goin' My Way?
(HorseApple, 2009)

If not a household name elsewhere, Gary McMahan is a familiar presence on the ranching and farming circuit. Though I reside in a small rural Midwestern town in the vicinity of farms, I have never lived on one and thus have had no occasion to attend gatherings of agriculture professionals where I'm likely to see McMahan in action. Still, I have long adored his "The Ol' Double Diamond," recorded by Ian Tyson and dozens of others and sometimes acclaimed the finest cowboy song ever written. Well, it's definitely up there, but the top slot will be occupied forever by "Leaving Cheyenne."

Goin' My Way?, McMahan's first studio album since 1992 but the first I've heard, is an engaging collection of songs and recitations by a man who is unmistakably a seasoned professional performer. Just as apparently, he has the raw talent behind the showman's gloss (not, it should be added, that anybody would mistake McMahan for a slick Nashville hustler eating up his 15 minutes). Most of the material is Western-themed and suited to the cowboy circuit, where you need authentic range credentials to get a hearing. Native Coloradan and rancher McMahan has a lifetime's worth of those.

Here and there, the songs -- all but two McMahan originals or co-writes -- are verse set to music, as were, it should be noted, many of the original cowboy folk songs. Otherwise, McMahan covers fellow Western balladeer Michael Hurwitz's "Ghost Ranch," which borrows the melody Bob Dylan borrowed for "North Country Blues" (it's on The Times They Are A-Changin'). A hidden cut, Bob Frank's "Leave My Jack Daniels Alone," was recorded 35 years ago but, aside from being a bit more produced than the other cuts here, fits in fine. Surely, though, it was written with Bobby Bare in mind. If you didn't know better, you'd think Bare was singing it, too.

Goin' has its sober moments, but mostly it's laughs and celebrations, good cheer and manly emotion untainted by sappiness. Production ranges from spare acoustic folk to full hillbilly band. None of it displeases this ear. McMahan's approach is happily rooted in comfortable old-shirt styles -- it wouldn't work if it were otherwise -- as practiced by the likes of Ian Tyson, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Bob Wills and all who went before them. Beyond that, McMahan is a terrific yodeler (more Swiss than blue, in other words more Elton Britt than Jimmie Rodgers). If you like that stuff as much as I do, "Yodel Poem," which is nothing but yodeling, will put you into a swoon.

review by
Jerome Clark

2 January 2010

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