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James McMurtry - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 22/4/2022

  by Lisa Torem

published: 23 / 5 / 2022

James McMurtry - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 22/4/2022


Lisa Torem watches James McMurtry return to Chicago’s Old Town School and drew from an assortment of albums, including gems from his latest album ‘The Horses and the Hounds'.

With only 26 letters and a 12-string, James McMurtry introduces us to characters many of us may never meet, but whom we’ll likely understand and possibly admire. It’s been a long time between performances; this Texas lone wolf has no backing band or special effects and certainly doesn’t need them. This singer/songwriter/ underrated guitarist has streamed performances from his kitchen table from time to time alongside his dogs (“Everybody likes dogs,” he quipped), but he’s not had the opportunity to connect, the way he will tonight. Perhaps he was making up for lost time, because there was no warehousing of material; it was a generous set. Flaunting a sardonic sense of humour, here’s how he addressed us before tuning up for ‘Choctaw Bingo,’ a reference to the high-stakes commercial hall. “Think I’ll do a medley of my hit.” ‘Choctaw Bingo’ is a tale that pools together drugs, native people and the odd meddling relative. It was McMurtry’s biggest hit from ‘Saint Mary of the Woods.’ This sarcastic, yet affectionate look at redneck relatives gathering for a family reunion got a rise from the audience, but, as I said, there was no shortage of material, so we had plenty of time to mull over his colourful story-songs. But on this specific gem, he spat out the lines like a tank commander, lunging at us from the meridian. He opened with the hard-driving ‘Painting by Numbers’ about our human longing to break away from societal rules, and conveyed that narrative through a child’s eyes: “the art teacher’s preaching the virtues of pastel shades.” He drew from past records, but also promoted material from the latest album, ‘The Horses and the Hounds.’ But people don’t pack the wooden pews and balcony only to hear the songs; they come because McMurtry is an unpretentious and thoroughly original performer. He grimaces and snarls his way through meaty phrases with clenched teeth. He’s dressed in Western-influenced, pale coloured, roomy fabric, but nothing flashy. No solid silver bolo ties to speak of or bold ten-gallon hat. His hair is spaghetti straight and his expressions are few. Although he’s not likely to crack a smile, his asides are guaranteed to make you laugh. His command of his acoustic guitars is impressive, and. although his albums feature layers of texture, his stand-alone originals don’t require padding, background harmonies or effects. His lyrics are dry but constant as blown tumbleweeds. He acknowledges the failures and weaknesses of human nature and everyday tragedy, without proselytizing or apologising, honouring strong figures like ‘Jackie’ who succumbs to black ice after years of sacrifice. ‘Red Dress’ is another emotionally charged song directed toward those who identify as female, but here, McMurtry unleashes a fierce backstory. “Where’d you get that red dress?” he slurs, in a world where there is “no one there to tell us no.” ‘No More Buffalo’ from ‘It Had to Happen’ is a disturbing thesis on what we Americans have lost through historical negligence. ‘Hurricane Party’ from ‘Just Us Kids’ rolls off the tongue. ‘Lights of Cheyenne’ from ‘Live in Aught-Three,’ is a subtle song about place, and how geography influences identity. But rapture also entered the room, when McMurtry rattled off the lyrics of ‘You Got To Me’ from ‘Complicated Game.’ “I knew this world a younger man,” he began the story, in this soulful rendition about succumbing to a tender moment and looking back with regret— “I didn’t know that we were not to be.” The scent of “cheap cologne and aftershave” stand as harsh reminders of love lost. Place names sing off the page; they’re the flesh and blood of the song, not mere phone book props. He acknowledges drinking problems and infidelity as part of human nature, without pointed fingers. Although he’s keenly aware of politics, his lyrics hint at injustice, but remain poetic. If we have to compare him to Bob Dylan, or other American songwriters, we can probably agree that his themes can morph seamlessly from sad to ironic and still retain an air of mystery. He acknowledges the gradual deterioration of human relationships and how they’re affected by time, distance and change. As binary creatures, we invariably compare our performers to their predecessors in an effort to brand them. So, if we absolutely have to compare McMurtry to Dylan, I guess, we can settle on ‘Hurricane Party’; ‘with the payoff line, “there’s no one to talk to when the lines go down,” but McMurtry’s so much his own person, and his audience is drawn from all walks of life. His musings on hunting, black ice, settlers and fire pissers opened the door to complex ideologies, without resorting to overtly political overtones. And no, McMurtry doesn’t talk much. His set was long with no breaks but he showed no sign of fatigue. At one point, however, he acknowledged, “You’ve been sitting there awhile,” but not a soul complained. We would have sat there contentedly for as long as he’d have us. ‘We Can’t Make it Here Anymore,’ which found its way into a political campaign went missing, but McMurtry made up for it. His place names become a part of his internal rhythms. He’s an efficient wordsmith. He repeats when needed, but doesn’t worry about fitting his thoughts into a given format. His father, Larry McMurtry, scribed ‘Terms of Endearment’ and ‘Lonesome Dove,’ but the son has dedicated himself to songs, although a stitching together of his repertoire could make a riveting outline for a greater work. McMurtry gave his latest album, ‘The Horses and the Hounds’ a markedly good run by launching us into the hard-scrabble landscape of ‘Blackberry Winter’ and the thrashers of ‘Canola Fields.’ Long-suffering horse rancher ‘Jackie’ succumbs to black ice on the song of the same name. Amid incredible guitar work, “Jackie does her best, never one to complain.” But listen up; the songwriter seamlessly turns the story over to himself and his “two rules”: “Don’t lie to me; don’t bring me nothing home.” On ‘Vaquero,’ the crusty baritone sings a chorus in perfect Spanish, the second language of the huge state of Texas and I love that he feels no need to translate the words to us Gringos. As audience, we’ve got to bring something of our own to the communicative table. For ‘Levelland,’ McMurtry describes the Texan landscape as “flatter than a tabletop” and chronicles “the great migration west,” mentioning earlier settlers and their struggle to crop. Winding down his set, McMurtry featured ‘If it Don’t Bleed,’ another reflection stemming from a childhood memory: “But I wasn’t any smarter than the average kid,” he admits. Come the chorus, he ties it all together: “Save your prayers for yourself, raise my glass to your health.” McMurtry introduced ‘If It Don’t Bleed’ as one of his more optimistic songs, but which “still has an air of cynicism.” I find it joyful yet smacking of realism: Like many of McMurtry’s songs, it’s about resilience and survival. “You stay in the game when you’re too broke to fail.” Despite earnest requests, house lights got turned on; he left without giving an encore, but it would have been a big ask. Lifting a line from ‘Vaquero,’ “una vez mas” or “once more” wasn’t necessary. He gave us more than was promised.

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Interview (2021)
James McMurtry - Interview
Austin, Texan singer-songwriter James McMurtry talks to Lisa Torem about his first album,in six years ‘The Horses and The Hounds’, and songcraft, politics, early influences and why he never could play like Johnny Cash.



The Horses and the Hounds (2021)
First new album in seven years from singer songwriter and guitarist James McMurtry which features killer stories and raucous guitar

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