As singer-songwriter James McMurtry sees it, he is selling the fantasy of the disgruntled third son who sees through the myth. It is the counter narrative to the one embedded in the Nashville version of life as it’s lived in 21st century America. He’s an outsider on the inside telling tales from the disheartened heartland. He’s also a hell of a guitar player with a great band to match.
He calls his songs “twisted fiction.” Like John Prine, his songs tell a story filled with small, telling details and a wry wit, but he never writes a lyric before first having a tune or at least a riff. Listening to him on the album recorded live in a club in Holland a couple of years back is like listening to Prine fronting a boozy Stones-fired, Crazy Horse-style rock ‘n’ roll band in full flight.
Every time I’ve talked to McMurtry he has had the heavy air of a man who can barely raise the energy needed to keep up his end of the conversation. But when he straps on his guitar, he comes alive. You’ll hear what I mean if you listen to the beginning of “Live in Europe,” recorded in Amsterdam in 2009. An excited Dutch MC is shouting a garbled introduction while the band, oblivious to him and impatient, is already playing their first song. McMurtry has no time for banter or small talk when what he has to say is so damned important.
And of course he’s right. He may seem rude at times and even a little abrasive, but it’s mostly just a front. He’s a turtle sheltering from the cruel winds inside his shell while looking in on the lives of the powerless, all trying to survive and doing all they can to hold onto their dreams. These are the people whose lives are limned in songs like “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” men and women working “two jobs and livin’ in cars” in small towns way off the interstate where only those who live there ever go. These are the places McMurtry makes it a point to visit because … well, hell, somebody’s got to tell their story.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that McMurtry is some hand-wringin’ do-gooder come to make you feel guilty. First and foremost he’s a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player with a butt-kickin’, take-no-prisoners band. Talking about his work in the notes to the album “St. Mary of the Woods” he said, “I grew up listening to music, not writing poetry.” The words are very important, but the sound matters just as much. This is rock ‘n’ roll written and sung by a poet who can play as well as he can write.
The son of novelist Larry McMurtry, James grew up listening to Johnny Cash and Roy Acuff in his father’s Fort Worth home. His father gave him his first guitar when he was just 7 years old, but it was his mother, Jo Ballard Scott McMurtry, an English professor, who taught him to play it. She introduced him to Kris Kristofferson and took him to a Kristofferson concert when he was 9 years old.
“I already had a guitar which I was serious about,” McMurtry told one interviewer. “But Kris was a songwriter. I’d never really wondered about where songs came from before.”
He was 25 before he completed his first song, but once he started he never stopped. In short order, he had a contract and was making his first album, “Too Long In The Wasteland.” The title song about a guy undone by bad decisions is a gritty, Dylan-esque vision of one life in a blasted landscape where there “are bullet holes in the mailbox.”
McMurtry has been sharing these blunt narratives for more than 20 years now, so is it really any surprise that he often has the air of a man who has been disappointed by life? But when the drums kick in and he hits that first growling note on his guitar all of the frustration and hopelessness he’s felt is focused and yet forgotten.
When he was young he dreamed he and his mother could fly. These days on a good night we can all fly with him.
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.
9:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18
Rhythm & Brews 221 Market St.
(423) 267-4644 rhythm-brews.com