GoLocal Interview: Americana Songwriter James McMurtry

Sunday, December 13, 2015


James McMurtryView Larger +

James McMurtry Plays the Narrows Center Thurdsday

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.

Road Warrior

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.

Complicated GameView Larger +

Complicated Game is the new album by James McMurtry

Complicated Game

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!"

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