James McMurtry at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern
Sentient beings get down sometimes, man. Life ebbs; life flows — and your mood follows suit. It’s cool: Happens to everyone, even James McMurtry.
I’ve seen McMurtry about a hundred times, and my wife’s probably seen him more. She frequently travels to Austin for business and catches him at the Continental Club Gallery on Tuesdays. If Wednesday’s a getaway day, she may even catch his midnight Wednesday show next door at the proper venue. Point is, McMurtry is banging out a living, night by night, despite being the best living songwriter in America.
I saw McMurtry for the 101st time last night at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern. I won’t get into too much detail about his set list; if you’re curious as to what he plays live, go see him. He tours often, and even when he’s not, you can catch him in Austin. He played neither “Broken Bed” nor “Gulf Road,” because those songs are too perfect to spoil with an errant chord. (He did play another perfect song, “You Got to Me.”)
He did play his ultimate fan favorite, “Choctaw Bingo,” a rollicking tune containing such remarkably precise detail that it makes every other songwriter want to sit in a corner and ponder why they can’t do it like that. One time I asked McMurtry what his second-biggest crowd-pleaser was, and he responded with “Restless.” He plays it regularly, as he did at the Tractor, and the fact that people love to hear him play it is the ultimate antidepressant.
On its surface, “Restless” is a song about a man and a woman, and how he’s both awestruck by and struggling to grapple with the peccadillos of her personality. But the chorus is divergent, an instant pickup when your heart has a hiccup.
“I’m just a little down tonight. I’m just a little down. A little messed up is all I’m saying. Just a little down tonight, I’m just a little down. But I believe I’ll make it.”
It’s that belief that gets people out of bed in the morning, and I can’t emphasize how important it is that McMurtry reinforces this, both in song and through his own dogged resilience. These are incredibly dark times in America, regardless of one’s political affiliation. Our president conducts himself like a 12-year-old boy with a rock-hard boner and a BB gun for a mouth that won’t stop firing. That’s embarrassing, deflating, and not what our country’s baddest hombre should be representing. Taking umbrage in McMurtry’s optimistic brand of restlessness in times like these isn’t an option, it’s a necessity. With my vest unbottoned and my necktie loose, impervious to all abuse.