Decades later, James McMurtry still weaves magical tales from out on the road.
It used to be that you could spend a few weeks working straight through recording an album. Then, once you’d honed it and fine tuned it, you could head out on the road for some tour dates when you had time, with the record in the rear view.
But times have changed, and touring is more important than ever. People aren’t buying albums like they used to; the masses download songs to their devices and maybe if they like what they hear, they’ll grab the whole record. Maybe.
James McMurtry gets that. That’s why for his brilliant new album “Complicated Game,” the latest of several critically-acclaimed, masterfully-written records he’s done over the years, he’d record a little and then head out on a long stretch of shows, and then pop back into New Orleans to record some more. His studio guys might even snag a top player to do some fills, all while McMurtry is out making the bread.
“Nowadays, you have to tour a lot more than we used to, because that’s where all the money is,” McMurtry told me from Austin during a break at this year’s South by Southwest Festival. “The new record was piecemeal- it took a year to make. We can’t afford to stop for six weeks and just go in and make a record. I’d lay down some tracks and then go away, and Charles and Matthew would try to figure out what to do with them. I guess Benmont Tench was in town at some point, so they cornered him and got him in the studio, I wasn’t there for that session. I was there for one of Ivan Neville‘s vocal sessions, which was great. Harmony sessions can really be painful, trying to get a guy to match your phrasing and hit the notes at the same time, and he just walked in there and nailed it.”
After almost 30 years making music, that’s the way it seems to work for this truly gifted mainstay of the Americana/folk rock scene. A unique character with dashes of Prine, Zevon and Cockburn sprinkled in, but with beautifully crafted songs that are all his own, McMurtry sounds like a guy who’s spent a lot of time on the road. His slow, steady, weathered way of talking and his seemingly laid back demeanor would lead you to believe he really is just ambling along, making music, nary a care. But listening to the sharp wisdom, inherent beauty and savvy insight of his songs reveals a guy who really gets what a compelling musical tale is all about.
McMurtry was raised not far from Washington, D.C. in Waterford, Virginia in the Catoctin Valley of Loudon County. It was an area steeped in indigenous music that he sapped up as he began to gather the paint for his musical palette.
“Being around Waterford was actually really good,” McMurtry said. “I got exposed to a little bit of bluegrass, which I never learned to play all that well, but I got to hear bluegrass played by the people who’d actually done the things that were described in the song. Like plowing the field and this, that and the other. There’s a one room schoolhouse in Lucketts, which is over the hill from us on Route 15, between Leesburg and Point of Rocks, they’d have bluegrass every Saturday night. They had a local house band and they usually had a road act, the Potomac Valley Boys or Country Gentlemen, something like that.”
A lot of McMurty’s songs are largely small stories, which makes sense given what he listened to early on, and as he began to write his own songs.
“Started from records really,” he said. “I was a Johnny Cash fan as a child, and then somebody turned me on to Kris Kristofferson. Later on I got into Dylan; I didn’t like him at first – I thought he sang funny. It came pretty easily to me once I started writing.”
McMurtry’s father Larry McMurty is one of America’s most well-known authors, penning novels that are often made into memorable films, like “Hud,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Did having an accomplished author for a father help him as he learned how to write songs?
“It was more listening to songwriters, I think,” said McMurty. “I listened to Kristofferson. I listened to Prine. It comes more from listening than from reading. I get a couple of lines and a melody and try to imagine who would have said those lines and then make it a character from that, and then I can get the rest of the song from the character.
James McMurtry performs Monday April 20th at The Hamilton, 600 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.