Wednesday night marked the second time in his career that James McMurtry had visited Bainbridge Island's Treehouse, a cozy pizza and ice cream parlor that doubles as a music venue. Although Bainbridge is but half an hour from Seattle, that half an hour comes by boat, so artists of McMurtry's ilk are afforded the rare opportunity to double-dip for disparate crowds in the same major market on back-to-back nights (he plays the Tractor tonight). Hence, the Treehouse has become a destination for Americana luminaries like Tift Merritt, Mary Gauthier (who plays there November 21), The Maldives, The Supersuckers, The Dusty 45s, Zoe Muth and Greg Brown, among many others.
Clad in a black felt fedora ("I don't look particularly good in a cowboy hat," McMurtry explains), wire glasses, white collared shirt, bluejeans and black cowboy boots, McMurtry took the stage around a quarter past eight, flanked by a pair of guitars. Last time McMurtry was here, in 2011, he squeezed a full band onstage. But those days are largely over, thanks to airline fees. "You can't fly a band anymore because they charge for bags," says McMurtry, who'd arrived from Austin earlier in the day for the start of a weeklong solo jaunt down the coast. "In the '80s, you could fly a drum kit anywhere by bribing the sky captain."
One of McMurtry's guitars, a 12-string, traveled in a case with a bumper sticker announcing "Praise the Lard" affixed to it. Playing solo, those extra six strings give McMurtry a puncher's chance of emulating the fuller sound that a band affords him. They also served notice that McMurtry, whose accolades typically come in the form of praise for his peerless songwriting, is a sneakily superb guitarist. Alone, he's prone to long, intricate guitar solos. Technically speaking, McMurtry doesn't consider himself to be a "real musician" like his son, Curtis, who recently graduated from Sarah Lawrence with a degree in music composition, and who's currently trying to make a go of it in Nashville with some of his dad's old running mates. But McMurtry's playing style is road-hewn and inimitable, the sort of qualities classical training can't instill.
Without any wingmen, McMurtry, a shy man who likes to let his music do the talking, is compelled to banter a bit more than he might otherwise, as those guitars need tuning from time to time. It should surprise no one who's ever heard "Choctaw Bingo" that he has a heightened sense of humor. In person, he can be refreshingly droll. Beckoning the sold-out crowd to shake a leg to the aforementioned crystal meth road epic, McMurtry said, "Looks like we got a little bit of dance space for all you non-Baptists here. The rest of you can imitate Methodists." And later, he introduced "We Can't Make It Here" by saying, "I'm gonna do a medley of my hit."
People who live on Bainbridge Island have made it here. While the forested isle used to feature its fair share of back-to-the-land hippies, that constituency's largely been washed away by the region's aggressive affluence. But McMurtry's recession-era track resonated nonetheless, as Seattle and a small suburb to its south are currently contemplating the institution of a $15 minimum wage, which would double the standard sung by McMurtry. In listening deeply to the tune, the words "make it" take on a multitude of meanings. If there's a master of the double entendre in modern music, McMurtry's it; hopefully Bob Dylan will afford McMurtry the opportunity to open for him a few times before the former troubadour perishes. If such a pairing doesn't happen, lovers of wry lyricism will have been royally cheated.
It's been five years since McMurtry's last studio album, Just Us Kids, and he's now on his fifth label (Complicated Game), having taken his leave of Compadre after fellow Texan Mathew Knowles--"Destiny's dad," as McMurtry refers to Beyonce's progenitor--assumed the reins. He debuted a trio of new songs last night (he'll head into the studio at year's end, with a new album forecasted for Autumn 2014), one of which was a rev-up called "Ho'w I Gonna Find You Now?" that McMurtry described as a "'Choctaw Bingo' upgrade" (it wasn't, although it was good). Another, "Long Island Sound," sounded like a subtle ode to the everyday resilience of Hurricane Sandy survivors that Springsteen could have penned.
Only that's not what it was. After the show, over a glass of red wine which would be chased by a pint of Guinness, McMurtry revealed that the inspiration for the track was simply being stuck on a bridge while attending his son's college graduation. "I kind of wanted a counter to 'Stuck Up Here With Dixie on My Mind'," he explained. And now he's got it.
Down Across the Delaware
Where'd You Get That Red Dress?
New song about sportsmen with a chord progression like The Grateful Dead's "Ripple"
Ruby & Carlos
How'm I Gonna Find You Now? (New song described as "'Choctaw Bingo' upgrade")
Long Island Sound (new song)
We Can't Make It Here
No More Buffalo (Encore)