Wed · August 9, 2017
Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pmThe State Room
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JAMES McMURTRY RELEASES COMPLICATED GAME, HIS FIRST STUDIO ALBUM IN SIX YEARS
"Back before Napster and Spotify, we toured to promote record sales. Now we make records to promote tour dates."
AUSTIN, Texas: James McMurtry spins stories with a poet’s pen (“Long Island Sound”) and a painter’s precision (“She Loves Me”). Proof: The acclaimed songwriter’s new Complicated Game. McMurtry’s first collection in six years spotlights a craftsman in absolutely peak form as he turns from political toward personal (“These Things I’ve Come to Know,” “You Got to Me”). “The lyrical theme is mostly about relationships,” McMurtry says. “It’s also a little about the big old world verses the poor little farmer or fisherman. I never make a conscious decision about what to write about.”
Complicated Game delivers McMurtry’s trademark story songs time and again (“Copper Canteen,” “Deaver’s Crossing”), but the record brings a new (and certainly no less energetic) sonic approach. Simply put: McMurtry brings forth a another new masterpiece.
“How’m I Gonna Find You Now,” the record’s lead single boasts buoyant banjos and driving drums endlessly energetic. Whiplash vocals further frenzy the beat. “I've got a cup of black coffee so I don't get lazy/I've got a rattle in the dashboard driving me crazy,” McMurtry effectively raps. “If I hit it with my fist, it’ll quit for a little while/Gonna have to stop to smoke in another mile/Headed into town gonna meet you at the mercantile/Take you to the Sonic get you grinning like a crocodile.”
Such vibrant vignettes consistently turn heads. They have for a quarter century now. Clearly, he’s only improving with time. “James McMurtry is one of my very few favorite songwriters on Earth and these days he's working at the top of his game,” says Americana all-star Jason Isbell. “He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics.” “James writes like he's lived a lifetime,” echoes iconic roots rocker John Mellencamp. Yes. Spin “South Dakota.” You’ll hear.
Further evidence: McMurtry’s Just Us Kids (2008) and Childish Things (2005). The former earned his highest Billboard 200 chart position in nearly two decades and notched Americana Music Award nominations. Meanwhile, Childish Things scored endless critical praise and spent six full weeks topping the Americana Music Radio chart in 2005 and 2006. In 2006, Childish Things won the Americana Music Association’s
Album of the Year and “We Can’t Make It Here” was named the rapidly rising organization's Song of the Year.
Of course, Complicated Game doubles down on literate storytelling longtime enthusiasts expect. Recall high watermarks past: “Childish Things,” “Choctaw Bingo,” “Peter Pan,” “Levelland,” and “Out Here in the Middle” only begin the list. (Yes, Robert Earl Keen covered those last two, “Levelland” remaining a live staple.) Just Us Kids alone includes fan favorites “Hurricane Party,” “Ruby and Carlos” and “You’d a Thought.” High watermarks deliver equal measures depth and breadth and pierce hearts with sharp sociopolitical commentary (“Fireline Road”).
More history: McMurtry critically lauded first album Too Long in the Wasteland (1989) was produced by John Mellencamp and marked the beginning of a series of acclaimed projects for Columbia and Sugar Hill Records. In 1996, McMurtry received a Grammy nomination for Long Form Music Video for Where'd You Hide the Body. Additionally, It Had to Happen (1997) received the American Indie Award for Best Americana Album.
In 2004, McMurtry released the universally lauded Live in Aught-Three on Compadre Records. The following year, Childish Things notched arguably his most critical praise, spending six weeks at No. 1 on the Americana Music Radio Chart in 2005 and 2006. In September 2006, Childish Things and “We Can’t Make It Here” won the Americana Music Awards for Album and Song of the Year, respectively. McMurtry received more Americana Music Award nominations for 2008’s Just Us Kids. This album marked his highest Billboard 200 chart position in more than nearly two decades.
In 2009, Live in Europe was released, capturing the McMurtry band’s first European tour and extraordinary live set. Along with seasoned band members Ronnie Johnson, Daren Hess, and Tim Holt, the disc features special guests Ian McLagan (The Faces) and Jon Dee Graham (True Believers, Skunks). Also, for the first time ever, video of the James McMurtry Band’s live performance is available on the included DVD.
The poignant lyrics of his immense catalog still ring true today. In 2011, “We Can’t Make It Here” was cited among The Nation’s “Best Protest Songs Ever.” “‘We Can’t Make It Here,’” Bob Lefsetz wrote, “has stood the test of time because of its unmitigated truth.”
McMurtry tours year round and consistently throws down unparalleled powerhouse performances. The Washington Post notes: “Much attention is paid to James McMurtry’s lyrics and rightfully so: He creates a novel’s worth of emotion and experience in four minutes of blisteringly stark couplets. What gets overlooked, however, is that he’s an accomplished rock guitar player ... serious stuff, imparted by a singularly serious band.”
It would be a mistake, however, to assume the geography of his upbringing automatically puts his music into college-country/red-dirt territory. His latest album, Along Alone Alright, on his own Dream Car Records label, stakes out turf in a wide-open space where artists freely mix folk and blues with a pinch of country twang, a dose of rock swagger and a whole lot of heart.
Burke’s been stirring those elements together since he and a childhood pal started the Dedringers when they were 15. Quickly making a name for themselves, they wound up spending seven years studying the human condition in the anthropology-lab bars of Texas, and well beyond.
After their amiable 2009 split, Burke moved to a friend’s guesthouse in Topanga Canyon, California. He stayed three years, exploring the L.A. music scene in-between tours with artists like James McMurtry and Ryan Bingham. The weather and surf were powerful attractions, but like most Texans, he was finally lured back—though he managed to perform in all 48 contiguous states before he turned 30.
In 2016, he headed to Durham, North Carolina, to record Along Alone Alright, his third full-length album, with American Aquarium's’s Ryan Johnson and Whit Wright, who co-produced.
Its 10 songs deliver food for thought about some weighty topics, such as aging, mortality and loss—including the death of dreams. With only three decades on the planet, it might seem early for Burke to delve into such subjects—despite his advanced field studies. But his applied learning actually started in his single-digit years, when he started to discover poets and pickers whose songs weren't on most kids' mixtapes.
“Chuck Berry's songs spoke to me as a child and raised my consciousness to a greater level. As did Hank Williams' songs. And John Prine's,” Burke says. “I realized at a very young age that songs are a great medium for a story.”
He set his sights on writing his own, and has proven remarkably good at it. In the standout tune “World's On Fire,” Burke guides the youthful hopes of a daydream boy and a calico girl toward a place where “Jack and Diane” meet “The River.” Over his gorgeous acoustic strumming, he sings, I fell asleep to the TV/I don't see much reality/Rich girls talkin' all 'bout themselves/You work at Walmart stocking shelves/Ain't got two dimes to rub together/We used to say this ain't forever.
“I got to know the couple in the song,” Burke says. “I felt like I had birthed these two characters. I love ‘em. They're from my generation and they belong to a group that doesn't get an honest portrayal in mainstream America. They know they face a hopeless future, but have not lost their ability to love.”
Another acoustic ballad, “Funerals and Weddings,” addresses “heartbreak and loss and what a grim state of affairs we live and die in.” Among its devastatingly piercing lyrics is this couplet: At the end of the day you're either winning or you're settling/Everybody dresses up at funerals and weddings.
“The state I was in at the time—drunk and heartbroken—helped me to remain sincere about what I was trying to convey,” Burke explains. “Sincerity,” he adds, “goes a long way in the book of song.”
Yes it does. But what sets Burke apart as a songwriter—and performer—is that combination of empathy and admiration for his characters. He doesn’t just observe their lives; he steps inside them—and looks beyond their conflicts to find connections.
“I love songs that tell a story that transcends right and wrong, black and white, heaven and hell,” he says. “By creating these pairs of opposites in our everyday lives, we limit how much of what’s going on around us really engages our senses.”
But even though he takes his craft seriously, Burke also knows the value of levity, as on the Stonesy country-blues picker “Sweeter Than You.”
“I wanted to write a real country song with the concept that everything sucks except for my sweetheart,” he says. “‘What's wrong in the world?’ ‘Everything.’ ‘Who do you love?’ ‘You, baby.’ It's like a cynic’s love song. Or a realist’s love song, depending on your view.”
With “Rent’s Gettin’ Bigger,” he recalls the days when he and his friends taught themselves to play by mimicking their favorite artists, then formed bands together.
“I wrote this about the guys I grew up playing with,” Burke says. “It's a bit nostalgic in a ‘rock ‘n’ roll will never die’ way, and was fun to write because it naturally lent itself to dropping in subtle references to the MC5 and the Velvet Underground and Neil Young. It gives me comfort to think that right now, there's some kids in a band somewhere covering ‘Tonight’s the Night’ and hoping they'll get laid. That was us.”
On another standout, “Where’d the Time All Go,” he sounds as if he graduated with honors from the Todd Snider School of Wry Self-Deprecation, where he also might have learned a thing or two about spinning truths into yarns—and vice versa. This song finds him going from a compromising situation with a politician’s daughter to getting lost—and found—in city streets and country towns.
“As a singer of folk songs, it's gonna be a rough four years if every time some politician does some dumbass shit I have to sing about it,” Burke says, laughing. “I'd rather sing about partying with their hot daughters.” But the song also touches on “growing up and suddenly realizing you're not the youngest boxer in the ring anymore.”
Of the gentle closer “Old Time Feeling (Like Before),” written with Evan Felker and R.C. Edwards of the Turnpike Troubadours, Burke says, “The three of us write about drunken songwriters and failed relationships a lot. That being said, we try our best to keep those songs from being bad clichés.”
No worries there. It’s a beautiful end to an album filled with charm—and one other potent element: Burke’s enduring belief in the life-transforming power of a single song. Even if that transformation ends when the song does, it can happen again—each time someone listens, or flips through a someday songbook and reads a few lyrics. Maybe they’ll look to see who wrote them, and notice a name hanging in the corner. Without an H.
– Lynne Margolis
The State Room
638 South State Street
Salt Lake City, UT, 84111