James McMurtry’s Continental Riffs
James McMurtry sits at the counter of an Austin diner called Snack Bar, its exterior illuminated by a giant neon phallus announcing the name of the adjoining motel. As he drinks red wine, he briefly discusses his hobbies, of which there aren’t many. He likes to fish and hunt, but draws the line at pigs. “It’s like shooting a sentient being,” he explains. “They’re weird. They’re really smart. But they sure taste good.”
Instead, McMurtry prefers scouting deer and turkey, the latter a delicacy that 85 percent of Japanese people have never tasted. In Japan, it’s not uncommon for people to pay $2 for a single apple, there aren’t any 24-hour ATMs, and folks are fond of visiting Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas. All of this information can be gleaned by looking out the window of the storied Continental Club’s upstairs gallery, which offers a view of a digital reader board offering factoids about Japan from a sushi restaurant called Lucky Robot. Across the river is downtown Austin, and across South Congress Avenue is Jo’s, an al fresco espresso stand known for a cold, sweet beverage called an Iced Turbo, as even the hardiest Texans are loathe to order a piping hot jolt on a hundred-degree Tuesday.
As 8:30 p.m. approaches, McMurtry emerges at the top of the gallery’s staircase, clad in a white fedora, jeans, cowboy boots, and a light blue guayabera shirt. Without a word, the lanky 52-year-old makes for the tiny bar, which is decorated with white Christmas lights, and orders his favorite beer, a Lagunitas IPA. On the gallery walls are posters for B-movies, with a large Persian rug on the floor denoting a stage. Three dozen patrons—essentially the room’s capacity—hunker down on couches, stools, and love seats with worn upholstery as McMurtry begins plucking out the first bars of “Late Norther,” an intricate instrumental off his superb 1995 album, Where’d You Hide the Body.
“People talk about him reverentially as a songwriter, and he stands up to that,” says Jon Dee Graham, whose band plays before McMurtry’s every Wednesday at the Continental Club’s main ground-floor venue. “But he’s a monster guitar player.”
A few minutes into this night’s performance, McMurtry plays “St. Mary of the Woods” and stares into the audience—or over it—through wire-rimmed spectacles, an unruly goatee cascading from his chin. Later, he adds an extra verse to his lyrically prodigious Midwestern meth-head masterpiece, “Choctaw Bingo.”
She lives over in Missouri off of I-44
Next to that great big ’ol billboard of that little bitty baby
Wantin’ to know “Who’s My Daddy?” sellin’ that DNA testing
And she just done six months down at that Red River Rehab
Had a little pain pill problem, but she’s okay now, you know she’s okay now
As with his songwriting, which Graham describes as “pretty carefully cloaked,” McMurtry is a tough man to read. In person, he’s remarkably succinct, an economical communication style that can be mistaken for standoffishness. For example, when asked what qualities he finds most important in a friend, McMurtry says, “If they return my phone calls, I guess.” About the significance of playing the Continental Club on a weekly basis, he explains, “It’s a little bit of money for me and my band every week that we’re home.” Asked to describe his writing process, he says, “I do it when it’s time to make a record, mostly.” And as for why he hasn’t put out an album since 2008, he replies, “Didn’t need to. We were still drawing on the road.”
“I’m not usually a complete asshole,” he explains. “Just every once in a while.”
“He’s pretty shy,” adds his 23-year-old son, Curtis, himself an up-and-coming Austin troubadour. “I think he missed some social skills by going to an all-male boarding school, [although] it did wonders for his guitar playing. These days, he’s pretty good about meeting fans. But most of my life, he had a hard time with people coming up to him in public places.”
Graham recalls: “I went to a mutual friend of James and mine and said, ‘I don’t know why he doesn’t like me,’ and he said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘He’s maybe said 100 words to me in a year and a half,’ and he said, ‘100 words? Jesus Christ, he loves you!’ There have been moments in my life and moments in his life where we’ve shown up for each other. But it’s not a touchy-feely thing. James wants to let you know he’s there for you, and that’s it.”
As 2014 wanes, McMurtry’s got his 11th album in the can, which, upon its release early next year, will mark his first studio output in seven years. He recorded it in New Orleans with ace zydeco producer C.C. Adcock, and McMurtry describes it as “more careful” and dynamic than his prior records. “It ranges from almost bluegrass to almost hip-hop,” he explains, the latter style achieved by “messing around” with the road-tested rocker “How Am I Gonna Find You Now?” Tom Petty’s keyboardist, Benmont Tench, played on several tracks, as did Derek Trucks, Ivan Neville, Danny Barnes, and McMurtry’s son Curtis, who contributed banjo and backing vocals.
The LP will be put out on the European imprint Complicated Game (McMurtry’s label-mate is David Lynch), which should enable McMurtry to play more overseas markets. “We used to tour to support record sales. Now we make records to support tours,” he explains. “I’m getting older, so I need more money. You can be young and broke, but you cannot be old and broke. I need to fix it so when we run out of road in the States, we can go [to Europe]. Middle-aged Americans can still get big over there.”
But can James make it here anymore?
“I’m sure he’d like to have more money than he has, but I’m not sure how much it bothers him, and I don’t know that he won’t get that audience eventually,” says Curtis. “I don’t feel like it’s too late for that, and I don’t feel like he does, either.”
“I Write What I See Through the Windshield”
McMurtry was born in Fort Worth, but was raised mainly in Virginia. He is the son of Larry McMurtry, the novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter. Larry, who taught at George Mason University, had primary custody of James, but on weekends James would stay with his mom, Jo, who taught at the University of Richmond. Jo was the one who nurtured James’ discovery of music, teaching him how to play guitar and taking him to see Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Kris Kristofferson. Still, through his father, James was introduced to John Cougar Mellencamp—an early champion of his music—and Stephen King is James’ most outspoken fan.
This has been a recipe for success, but not of the runaway kind. To wit, McMurtry lives in a rented duplex less than a mile from the Continental Club with several outdoor cats (“He’s a crazy cat man,” says Curtis) and his girlfriend of 13 years, who’s a bartender. No wonder, then, that McMurtry regularly implores his fans to tip their drink-pourers generously as he “twists some strings” between songs.
“Musicians are symbiotically tied to the service industry, whether they like it or not,” says McMurtry, who concedes that he was “a terrible bartender” back when he briefly tried his hand at it.
Curtis occasionally stays at his dad’s house, which is half-studio, half-residence. His mother, James’ ex-wife, lives just a couple of blocks away, and the former spouses get along well. “She did most of the raising [of Curtis],” McMurtry says. “She told me one time, ‘We only hated each other for a little while.’ ”
Despite his frequent tours, McMurtry was far from an absentee father. “He’s never been anything but kind to me,” says Curtis. “There were times when he could have just screamed at me, and he chose not to. There was a time when I’d just finished the eighth grade. In rebellion, some friends of mine and I set fire to our notebooks and went inside and watched a movie. We thought we’d hosed everything down, but my dad came home from a gig that night, and there was this cardboard box smoldering when he got home. It could have lit the house on fire. He didn’t tell me anything about it until my friends left the next morning. I wasn’t grounded, but he took me out to breakfast and made it really clear to me how badly I’d messed up. It led me to understand the gravity of the situation more than if he’d actually done anything to me for it.”
On his new album, McMurtry sets several tracks on the East Coast, which isn’t as peculiar as it seems. He attended the same all-boys Virginia boarding school as George W. Bush’s baby brother, Marvin, and sent Curtis to college at Sarah Lawrence in New York. It was there, while stuck on the Turnpike, that McMurtry conjured up “Long Island Sound,” its main character a Tulsa transplant who’s moved to the Big Apple.
“He writes really well from the perspective of small-town people—even small-town people who’ve moved to the city,” says Curtis. “That seems to be his game. It’s impressive stuff, that’s for sure.”
Another song off McMurty’s upcoming LP is “Copper Canteen,” where he sings:
Honey, don’t you be yellin’ at me when I’m cleanin’ my guns.
I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done.
We’ve got one more weekend to go, and I’d like to kill one more doe…
Well I’ll shovel the sidewalk again ‘cause you’re still in a stew.
I’ll bet the bridge-tender’s widow wouldn’t mind if I can’t please you.
She’s sure got the run of the men, out here where the pickin’s are thin and there’s not much to do…
And I woke up last night in the grip of a fright, scared to breathe for I might make a noise. For this life that we crave, so little we save
between the grandparent’s grave and the grandchildren’s toys…
We grew up hard, and our children don’t know what that means.
We turned into our parents before we were out of our teens…
“[When] he wrote that,” says Curtis, who felt he’d been gaining on his dad as a songwriter, “I had to go sit in a corner.”
Graham, a raspy-voiced Austin legend whose songs are more autobiographical and punk-tinged than McMurtry’s, is similarly floored by his peer’s compositional chops. “A lot of times, I find it hard to watch, because as a songwriter it’s like getting beaten up,” he says. “My band and I did a Midwest run and we drove ‘Choctaw Bingo.’ You can pretty much go by verse. I can personally see James driving down that highway, taking mental notes. Architecturally, it’s an amazing song.”
“I write what I see through the windshield,” explains McMurtry. ”I can’t remember ever making something up based on someone I saw. It’s a composite of things. A lot of the characters in my new songs, I don’t agree with them politically.”
It would be difficult to call McMurtry a political songwriter, though he has written overt rallying cries in the past, like “We Can’t Make It Here” and “Cheney’s Toy.” But the new album, he says, is “more relationships, less politics,” although “there are touches of politics as it relates to economics.”
Case in point: “Carlisle’s Haul,” the story of a clandestine crabbing operation off the Maryland coast. “It’s hard not to cry and cuss when this whole world’s bigger than us, and all we’ve got is pride and trust in our kind,” McMurtry sings, his protagonists two men—Old Carlisle and Uncle Freddy—whose way of doing things has been rendered obsolete by modern norms. Narratively gifted as they come, McMurtry has persistently shone his light on overlooked grinders, always careful to avoid stereotyping, and renders his subjects in nuanced tones.
Austin’s True North
On South Lamar Street sits South Austin Music, which is Jon Dee Graham’s go-to guitar store. The fifth-generation Texan’s animated likeness is one of 30 painted on a mural on the side of the shop. There, he’s joined by McMurtry, Alejandro Escovedo, Jimmie Vaughan, Bruce Robison, and Kelly Willis, all of whom have been playing the Continental Club—located about two miles away—for decades.
“Bruce actually worked the door for a small amount of time,” says Willis of her husband and frequent collaborator. “I used to hang out there more than I used to play there. It was a great clubhouse. I have a million great memories about that club. It’s the heart of our music community, really, at least for roots music.”
“I live six blocks from the Continental Club; James lives maybe 12,” says Graham, who’s been playing the venue for 37 of his 55 years. “Not just musically and culturally, but geographically, it’s my True North. It always sort of begins and ends at the Continental Club. When I was riding high, it was the Continental Club. When I was riding low, it was the Continental Club. When I quit assigning positions to how I was riding, it was the Continental Club.”
“It never gets monotonous to me,” continues Graham, who, alongside McMurtry, is one of the club’s most tenured resident musicians. “I don’t use a set list ever, because how do you know what an audience wants to hear until you’ve met ’em? I feel like it’s my house. I’m completely unintimidated and unafraid. I’ve gone through phases where I would take a poll of how many guitar players were in the audience, and invite them onstage to play solos for the next four songs. I’ve completely replaced my band, one member at a time, with members of the audience. I’ve written songs onstage. There used to be an unwritten policy where musicians could get in for free at the back door. Frequently, the audience is at least a quarter musicians. In my band, it’s our version of poker night. We all get together every Wednesday night and shoot the shit.”
One time, Robert Plant, who lived in Austin for several years with his former musical and romantic partner Patty Griffin, showed up for the Wednesday twin bill. “I couldn’t buy a groove that night, and who do I look up to see lookin’ bored but Robert Plant,” recalls McMurtry.
Until about 20-some years ago, around when Dianne Scott began working at the club, South Congress Street “used to be dangerous,” says McMurtry. “The Continental Club staff used to leave en masse. No waitress ever left alone.”
“If you were looking for a hooker or heroin, South Congress is where you went,” adds Graham. “The San Jose Hotel, which now is an extremely tony place to stay, had hourly rates back in the ’70s and ’80s. It was a run-down, caved-in, threadbare hooker hotel. What’s hilarious to me are the people who moved here in 2000 who are complaining that Austin’s gone to hell. When I moved here in ’77, there were guys who said, ‘You missed it; ’67 was when it was really rocking.’ So, yes, South Congress has changed a lot. Now it’s a destination where you can buy designer clothes and stay at a $400 a night hotel. But the Continental is the heart of South Congress, and it’s still there. There are some things in Austin that don’t change, and that’s one of them.”
Stubb’s is another, and that institution is what made Dianne Scott move to Austin instead of San Antonio when she relocated from upstate New York to be closer to her mother. Scott had seen Stubb’s on the jacket of a Joe Ely album, and began researching the place. Once she hit town, she stalked the venue’s proprietor, Christopher “Stubb” Stubblefield, mercilessly, until, after two weeks of taking his morning coffee with Scott, he hired her.
Scott, her body covered in floral and astrological tattoos, lived for a time behind the Austin Opera House in a cluster of apartments nicknamed “Willie’s Ghetto”—because they were owned by Willie Nelson—and became a booking agent for local bands. But in spite of Austin being, in Scott’s opinion, “the most vibrant music scene I’ve ever experienced,” it lacks the spigot of earmarked cash that you’ll find in Nashville, where Curtis McMurtry lived for a spell after graduating college.
“They are both wonderful cities for musicians,” he says. “I think the big difference between them is that there is money present in Nashville for songwriters. There’s a proximity to that wealth, and that definitely affects their writing and how much they care about it. Nashville isn’t all that laid back; anyone who stays there really knows how to hustle. No one’s really writing for a publishing house in Austin, and they’re more sentimental about their songs.”
Likewise, in Washington, DC, where Kelly Willis began her career before relocating to Austin in the ’80s, things were “much more competitive” between musicians. “Even though we all liked each other’s music, we all knew that there were only so many gigs,” she says. “[In Austin], everyone was kind of rooting for each other. In the beginning, there were just so many venues to play, and this really great, laid-back, hippie, artsy culture going on here—and being this one spot in this huge state where people could be kind of weird and different. It used to be really inexpensive to be here; it was just a perfect little spot for music to take hold.”
The Continental Club has been around since 1955, with a short-lived inception as a members-only supper club and a subsequent iteration as a burlesque haunt. The ’70s is when it established itself as one of the town’s foremost purveyors of blistering country-rock, its stage graced by the likes of Ely and Stevie Ray Vaughan. In 1987, Steve Wertheimer purchased the Continental and embarked upon a sort of reverse renovation, restoring the club to its shabby ’50s glory. With Scott eventually coming on to manage the place, Wertheimer packed his schedule with residencies, programming music every night from happy hour through last call and eventually adding the gallery for more intimate sets.
“The town started growing, and they figured out how to do music at different times,” recalls Willis. “I remember when Junior Brown was playing there during happy hour, and it was just the coolest thing.”
“A lot of people come to Austin, and they all go to that club,” McMurtry told me in 2010. “It’s a world-renowned little bitty club.”
Every Wednesday at midnight when he’s not on the road, McMurtry plays a long set in the Continental Club’s main room, which boasts a capacity of 200. Midnight on Wednesday would be a crummy gig in most cities, but Austin isn’t most cities, and McMurtry isn’t most artists.
“That particular combination of Jon Dee and James is what we call ‘adult night,’ ” says Scott. “It’s thinking man’s rock and roll. They totally rock, but the songs mean something. It’s an anchor in the middle of the week.”
Adds Graham: “I have a small-to-medium cult following wherever I go, and James has a powerful draw. Musically, you have two intelligent lyricists, two great guitar-based bands; it just makes sense. Wednesdays had been decent before, but when James came on, then it got kind of crazy. It’s the best buy for your entertainment dollar anywhere in the United States on a Wednesday night.”
Graham has a vested interest in spouting such propaganda, but he’s hardly lying. While McMurtry admits he’s “not a dancer,” he nonetheless beckons his audience to boogie. “Looks like we’ve got a lot of dance space for all you non-Baptists,” he says, his sense of humor dry as the Panhandle plains. “We must respect a man’s religion, but only so much as we respect his opinion that his wife is beautiful and his children are intelligent.” In turn, as McMurtry and his band rip through their set—highlighted by what he considers his most effective live number, “Restless”—crowd members pinball into one another, their Shiner Bocks and Southern Comforts burping up splashes that dampen the floor.
Through it all, McMurtry remains sweaty and stoic, his outfit identical to the one he wore the night before. He either never changed, loves those clothes, or doesn’t care—but it’s not an insignificant detail. That weekend in Los Angeles, MTV telecast its annual Video Music Awards, where the likes of Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the same outfit during consecutive segments, much less back-to-back days. What they do there and what McMurtry does in Austin every Wednesday are so far removed from one another that it’s nearly impossible to believe that they’re technically encompassed by the same art form. With chart-topping pop these days, what’s sung is secondary to the spectacle, whereas with McMurtry, you get the feeling that if he could get away with playing behind the curtain, he would.
“This day and age, it really feels like it’s either pop music or nothing,” says Kelly Willis, whose early-career struggles with major labels are well-documented. “I have a lot to complain about back then, but at least there were people trying to do something for people like us. Now there’s nothing for people like us, in terms of major labels. But that’s okay. It’s keeping people out there playing a lot more live music. We have to play live so we can pay our bills.”
Back at Snack Bar, McMurtry’s getting toward the bottom of his glass. While he’s a true creature of Austin, he wouldn’t be averse to a move to Mendocino, California, or Las Cruces, New Mexico, where his lady knows some people.
“I like the hill wilderness,” he explains. “It’s the biggest expanse of nothing you’ll ever see.”
Sounds like fertile song material, but only if you’re James McMurtry.