GoLocal Interview: Americana Songwriter James McMurtry
Sunday, December 13, 2015
Texas singer James McMurtry, one of Americana’s greatest modern songwriters, is coming to the Narrows Center for the Arts on Thursday December 17th. McMurtry’s lyrics are on par with Dylan and Guthrie and his characters rival those of Springsteen, although generally occupying in a more rural setting.
We spoke to McMurtry as he prepared to head north from his home in the hub of Americana music, Austin Texas.
“It’s a solo run, just me and my two guitars,” noted the singer-songwriter who sometimes performs with a full band and plays a regular gig at the famed Continental Club with the Heartless Bastards every Wednesday night.
He’s looking forward to his mini-swing through the Northeast even though the 53-year-old points out that the nature of touring has changed.
“It’s flipped on its head. It used to be that you’d tour to promote records, now you make records to get people to go to the show.”
Accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, McMurty spins tales of modern despair around the theme of the failure of the American dream. His lyrics aren’t always pretty but they sure as hell are brilliant.
He comes from strong “American Lit” stock – his mother was an English professor who played guitar and sang folk songs and his father is the well-known author Larry McMurtry. He shared some thoughts on his songwriting in our interview.
“It usually starts with a couple of lines and a melody. Characters form from there and the character tells the story.”
Some songs come quick like “Ain’t Got a Place” from his recent album Complicated Game, which “took about 20 minutes to write.” Others, “sit around for years, like ‘You Got to Me,’ which took 20 years to write. Sometimes, I'll combine lines (from different songs) that have the same meter."
McMurtry fits the difficult to define Americana genre pretty well – his music is based in country/folk with a rock and roll edge. His songwriting tells stories of social despair, the down and out, and the barely hanging on. Although many of his characters may not know it.
According to McMurtry, his most requested song is the upbeat “Chocktow Bingo.” The tune is an 8+ minute long stream of consciousness epic about what might be described as a dysfunctional family reunion. Actually, the family "functions" just fine, with a shot of vodka and some benadryl mixed in the kid’s coke to help them sleep on the long ride.
Perhaps his most famous song “We Can’t Make it Here Anymore,” a blistering take down of corporate America during the Bush years and the economic devestation that faced working class America. It was declared the best song of the 2000’s by the dean of music critics Robert Christgau. You can’t get much better than that.
On record and in concert, McMurtry develops colorful characters that you get to know fast. “Copper Canteen,” from his latest album, is a good example.
“Honey don't you be yellin' at me when I'm cleaning my gun
I'll wash the blood of the tailgate when deer season's done
We got one more weekend to go
And I'd like to kill one more doe”
His latest album, Complicated Game, released last February, is his ninth studio album and was six years in the making. It’s made a number of year end “Best of 2015” lists including Glide Magazine and NPR Music. Earlier this year, it was declared a “masterpiece” by Rolling Stone. We agree!
The album was produced C.C. Adcock, who also produced recent albums from Robert Plante, Florence and the Machine, and Neko Case. Adcock brought in musicians from his band Lafayette Marquis to give the album a real New Orleans flavor.
McMurtry has also worked with producers John Mellencamp and Don Dixon. Of Mellencamp, he noted “he knew how to draw your ear. He worked all analogue … he would find a 'take' with the most life in it, even if it wasn’t quite perfect.”
You can hear a lot more from McMurtry at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River on Thursday December 17th. Tickets are available here for $25 in advance and $28 at the door. Boston based blues singer-songwriter Danielle Miraglia, well regarded in her own right, opens at 8PM. Don't be late!
Ken Abrams reviews Roots, Rock and Blues for GoLocal. E-Mail him here.
Related Slideshow: The 2015 Local Music Scene
Rhode Island is home to a thriving community of musicians, including many nationally recognized performers. For Black Friday, GoLocal Music Critic Ken Abrams has compiled some of the best local albums of 2015. We've got releases in a variety of formats - including CD, vinyl, cassette and digital. Check out our slideshow, find out more about some great local artists, and then go "Buy Local Music!"
Critically acclaimed RI band Brown Bird released Axis Mundi in April, their final album due to the untimely death of co-founder Dave Lamb. While fighting leukemia in 2013, Lamb along with musical partner and wife MorganEve Swain wrote and recorded the brilliant album. Its folk based, with compelling stories backed by Middle Eastern melodies with a rock beat. You can find it in a variety of formats at most area record stores.
Reggae/Ska band The Copacetics released their self titled album earlier this year. The album is a lot of fun as are their concerts around the state all year long. Check it out here and find it at record stores around the region.
It was a big year for one of RI's greatest rock band of all time, The Schemers. First, they were inducted into the RI Music Hall of Fame and then they released a new album, The Last Beach. Its an album rich in the Schemers classic sound with a heavy dose of Americana. You can find it in local record stores or order it online here at Emerson Torrey's Satellite Studios web site.
Jazz - Abate and Woods
A major release is coming in January from internationally recognized sax man and RI resident, Greg Abate. He's joined by lengendary tenor Phil Woods, who passed away recently, and recorded his final live album at Chan's in the summer of 2014. Click here for the pre-order and check out Whaling City Sounds in New Bedford for more great jazz.
The Red Pennys
The Red Pennys are a honky tonk Rockabilly band with a foot stompin' sound. Check them out tonight at Nick-A-Nees in Providence and then look for their 2015 release Taking Flight at What Cheer Records or your favorite record store. You can also find it online here.
Josh Grabert's stunning acoustic recording from last summer is a thing of raw beauty. Grabert, who also plays in the award winning rock band Torn Shorts, recorded The Shred Sessions in a backyard studio during the brutal winter of 2015. You can find the album here. (photo: Michael Civoli)
The Dust Ruffles
The Dust Ruffles are a pop/rock band from RI known for their catchy songs featuring four part harmonies. Their recent EP Romeo, is available in digital format here. You can also check Copper, a solo album recently released from guitarist Tammy LaForrest, here.
Singer-songwriter Chris Monti released his supurb blues-based acoustic album Box Guitar this fall. You can find the CD here or a digital version here. You can hear selections from the album at his 40th birthday bash Friday Dec 4 at Nick-A-Nees.
Consuelo's Revenge is a Providence based collective of musicians who just released a high energy album Mercy. They're a hard band to categorize - gypsy folk with a helping of neo-soul, or as the band calls it Amouricana. You can find the CD at "In Your Ear" records in Warren or online here.
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