James McMurtry – Musical verite
Not that McMurtry’s about to tell anyone how to vote, since he confesses that his own decision in the Texas primary was a ballot-box impulse. Though he resists the euphoria of the Obama crusade — one senses McMurtry distrusts euphoria in any form — he’d initially favored the Illinois senator by the slimmest margin of political preference.
“I’d intended to vote for him because he has a better website,” he says. “That was the only difference I could see between the [Democratic] candidates. But then I went in there and clicked on Clinton for some reason, after ranting against her in my blog some years ago.”
If those politically polemic cuts are likely to attract the most initial attention, the album as a whole attests to McMurtry’s range, growth and maturity as a songwriter. It also benefits from guest musicians including keyboardist Ian McLagan, guitarist Jon Dee Graham and harmonica player Pat MacDonald (formerly of Timbuk 3).
“The great thing about Austin is that you don’t have to fly people in and house them,” he says. “You can have a spontaneous idea like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if so-and-so played on this? Well why not call him up and see if he’s home?”
“Freeway View” in particular reflects a dynamic tension between the narrative perspective and the musical arrangement. It serves as a showcase for the rollicking, almost Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano of McLagan, most famous for his work with the Faces (and Small Faces) but one of Austin’s most valuable players since relocating there more than a decade ago. The high spirits of the music provide contrast with the downbeat desperation of the narrator, a man in a motel room who vows never to return to his lover but doesn’t trust his resolve, even as he concludes, “I love you but I’ve chosen darkness.”
If McMurtry is a singular songwriter, his career arc has also been the exception to the rule. Before he’d established a fan base, he found himself in his mid-20s signed to Columbia Records. He was the production project of John Mellencamp, who had long been a huge admirer of (and occasional collaborator with) James’ father, the renowned Texas novelist Larry McMurtry.
Too Long In The Wasteland matched arrangements reminiscent of Mellencamp (particularly on “Painting By Numbers”, the breakout hit that should have been) with lyrics showing a keen eye for detail, a mastery of narrative perspective, and a vocal delivery that could be considered either ironically deadpan or monotone.
It drew some admiring reviews, but it also sparked some resentment among fellow troubadours who had been plying their trade for years. There was a suspicion that Columbia was most interested in strengthening bonds with Mellencamp, and that Mellencamp was doing the same with James’ dad.
(Coincidentally or not, Mellencamp’s most recent literary collaborator is novelist Stephen King, who may well be James’ most famous and ardent fan. King has proclaimed McMurtry “the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.” Will the circle be unbroken?)
Even as a fledgling songwriter, James McMurtry sounded mature beyond his years. But as a performing artist, he seemed uncomfortable with the attention, both onstage and off. He seemed to equate the interviewing process with root canal. You’d ask him a question and receive a clenched-teeth response of a couple of words, wait through what sounded like a pregnant pause, and then realize after an uncomfortable silence that James had finished answering.
I found his refusal to play the promotional game refreshing, even as it made my job more difficult. After I first interviewed him for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1989, my family moved a year later to Austin, where James lived, and where we’d run into each other and have cordial conversations with no tape recorder. A few years after that, I started writing for a new magazine called No Depression, which would become the journalistic flagship for the sort of alt-country Americana that included McMurtry’s music.
Things change. The music industry is on the rocks (as the fate of No Depression attests) and I teach journalism in Iowa, while James long ago lost his major-label deal. Yet he has continued to sustain a career that is different from what he anticipated two decades ago.
“I didn’t know very much about the music business in those days, so I thought it was going to be a lot easier,” he says. “I think if my first record had been [commercially] successful, I wouldn’t have had to improve. Or I would have felt like I didn’t. I have had to improve because the budget kept shrinking. I had to do more of my own guitar work, and I had to learn to produce my own records, and that sort of thing, which really made me finally get better at it. At all of it.”
Though McMurtry’s early work suggested he was a fully-formed lyricist, his transformation into a live-wire guitarist leading a supercharged power trio could not have been predicted. Since he was once a stiff and diffident performer (though his brief, between-song patter, delivered without a smile, could be hilarious), I was amazed the last time I saw him at a small university club in Ames, Iowa. He not only packed the place but drove the crowd delirious. Fans were singing along — often shouting along — to songs they knew by heart, while his electric guitar seemed to send a high-voltage current through the crowd.
Who knew that one of the most reserved performers I’d ever seen could transform himself into such a dynamo?
“I prefer the rowdy crowd to the sit-and-stare crowd, unless it’s a solo gig,” he says. “When people are jumping around and hootin’ and hollerin’, you can rest assured they’re having a good time. If they’re staring at you, you don’t know what they’re thinking. You have to be pretty damn confident.”
If lack of confidence was ever a problem for James as a younger artist — with his poker face, it’s never been easy to tell — he now works a crowd as effectively as he leads a band.