“The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation…” – Stephen King
By Lisa Morgan
If you ask the legendary, American rock and folk-rock/Americana singer, songwriter, guitarist, bandleader and occasional actor, James McMurtry, about his new album, Complicated Game, he’ll give you a simple answer: “It was a business decision. We’ve been out touring, and our club draw started to fall off. Used to be, we toured to promote record sales. Now we put out a record so you guys (the press) will write about us, and get people out to the show.”
Perhaps, for this artist, known for his straight forward, no holds barred, political pull-your-covers personality, Complicated Game is a simple business decision, but for the rest of us who have tasted the fruits of this labor, it is a piece of literary and poetic, sonic art. Rolling Stone calls it, an “Americana masterpiece,” and in it, McMurtry, once again, captures the American experience:
And 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
through a series of Chevy’s and Fords
the occasional spin round the floor
at The Copper Canteen
Now the big boxes out on the by-pass are shaving us thin
I guess we’ll hold on a couple more years ’til the pension kicks in
then we’ll sell all the stock in the store
leave only the lock on the door
and wonder what then
When I wake up at night
in the grip of a fright
and you hold me so tight to your chest
and your breath on my skin
still pulls me back in
‘ til I’m weightless and then I can rest
So if Monsignor should pull you aside as you’re leaving the church
and I’m out on the ice dropping lines for the walleye and perch
tell him it’s not your job to bring me to the fold
and I’d rather stand out in the cold
And honey I know, the woodpile is low, and we can’t close the flu
so I’ll split up a couple more cords ‘fore the winter time’s through
hold on to your rosary beads
leave me to my mischievous deeds
like we always do
– excerpt from track 1 – “Copper Canteen”
This collection of stories and prose could have easily held its own as a timeless collection of erudite folktale, worthy of Yale and Harvard libraries, without the incredibly finessed sound-scape co-crafted by Grammy nominated producer, C.C. Adcock, and Mike Napolitano. McMurtry once again paints living, breathing pictures – sonic snapshots with a pulse – of people, places and lives portrayed as simply, colorfully and honestly as if he had lived and bled them himself.
CVW: This is your first album in 6 years. It seems to be a softer, gentler side sans frustrated, poignant political rants the likes of “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” and “Cheney’s Toy.” The writing seems to be more introspective and personal.
McMurtry: It’s not more personal really. It’s still a work of fiction. It’s just focused on relationships rather than politics.
CVW: You have a new producer on this album, and you even took some vocal coaching for this. Usually, the older we get, the less we want to change – what prompted this?
McMurtry: I think you have to keep changing somehow, to push the edge of what you know how to do already. I brought in CC because I’d kind of run out of ideas for production, and he brought in Mike Napolitano. They worked together in Louisiana. CC brought in David Forman as a vocal coach, I think because he’d used him before on one of his records and felt he got a better performance out of himself. So he thought he’d try it on me. There are notes that I am confident on now that I wasn’t before. The high stuff on, “She Loves Me” – I wasn’t hitting those every time. Supporting the note is a big deal. I’d had some coaching before, but this guy put it in layman’s terms. He said, “Go ahead and let your belly hang out, you’ll get better support that way.” I was pulling in before…little tricks like that.”
CVW: Both your parents are highly educated. Your mother is an English professor, and your dad is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Academy Award winning screenplay writer (Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove, Brokeback Mountain). Did it surprise your family when you wanted to pursue life as a musician?
McMurtry: Not really. My dad’s father was a rancher, and when he said he wanted to be a writer, they thought it was weird, but they didn’t fight him too hard. So by the time I came along, it was already perfectly ok to want to do some kind of art.
CVW: Where does your inspiration come from? Your work is so literary. Do you read a lot?
McMurtry: I don’t read at all. That literary style of writing came from listening to others like Kris Kristofferson, who’s a Rhodes Scholar. He really knows how to structure a verse. And John Prine just naturally does it that way. They write a very tight verse, where you can talk or sing it with equal effectiveness.
CVW: Did you ever consider doing anything else, or was it all over once your mom showed you those three chords on your first guitar?
McMurtry: No. Even before that, I idolized Johnny Cash. I knew that’s what I wanted to do from the get go.
CVW: I imagine that, even though your music is on Spotify, you have an opinion about “streaming”.
McMurtry: Yes, I do. I used to enjoy the benefits of the copyright, and now, there’s no such thing. The royalties on downloads are way lower than on hard copy, and on Spotify, it is pretty much nothing. I’m not in favor of that at all, but I can’t do anything about it. My late lawyer, who just died back in the winter, was one of the foremost copy writers in the country, and he was of the opinion that technology has so far out stepped copyright law, it will never catch up. But of course, when the Chinese get done taking over the world that’s not going to matter anyway. There won’t be copyrights or trademarks on anything.
McMurtry currently resides in Austin, Texas. When he is not on the road, you can catch James McMurtry in Austin for his regular solo/acoustic show at the Continental Club Galleryevery Tuesday. And the James McMurtry Band can be found each Wednesday performing their renowned regular midnight set at The Continental Club in Austin, Texas.
But this Thursday night, June 18th at 9pm, McMurtry will be joined by his tried and true road warriors: Daren Hess, Cornbread, and Tim Holt at the world renowned Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. This show is all ages. Doors open at 7pm and the show starts at 9pm. Also performing is Max Gomez. Tickets can be purchased by calling (760) 365-5956 or online at www.pappyandharriets.com.