James McMurtry’s new album Complicated Game could be one of the best Americana albums of the year
You won’t find a lot of details about James McMurtry in his songs. In fact, you won’t find any. The Austin-based singer-songwriter writes almost exclusively about fictional people he creates.
“The songs are all pretty much character driven,” McMurtry says. “I get a couple lines and then think, ‘OK, who said that.’ I try to envision the character that would say that, and I can usually get the story from the character.”
McMurtry has been interested in story songs since he was a child. When he was 9 years old, he was introduced to the music of singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, one of the best at telling stories. At the time, McMurtry was already a big Johnny Cash fan, but he had never given much thought to where Cash’s songs came from. Once McMurtry latched on to the songwriting craft, he didn’t let go—and it shows. He is now regarded as one of the finest songwriters around, a master at getting into the minds and perspectives of others.
In the song “Carlisle’s Haul,” from his new album Complicated Game, which is already being touted as one of the best Americana releases of the year, McMurtry sings about Gulf Coast commercial fishermen illegally fishing off-season to make ends meet. In “Long Island Sound,” he sings from the point of view of a Long Island workingman. In “You Got to Me,” he explores lost love from the perspective of someone who has just come from a big city wedding and is standing out in the dark, in an undone three piece suit, reflecting on who he used to be.
A lifelong Texan, McMurtry understands the characters he’s singing about, regardless of where they’re from. He says this understanding of them generally starts with a single phrase.
“I just hear the lines,” he says, explaining that one line might stay with him for years before he puts it in a song. “If it’s a cool line, and it keeps me up at night, then I’ll finish the song.”
But just because McMurtry doesn’t share the details of his own life in his songs doesn’t mean that he can’t be found in them. He is at once nowhere and everywhere in the stories he tells—a reminder that the storyteller can’t be separated from the story.
His ability to write from the perspective of someone who may think completely different than he, McMurtry says, may have to do with the fact that he has a lot of cousins that live out in the country and vote Republican. He hears their perspective and they’ve inspired some of the characters in his songs that don’t necessarily agree with him politically.
McMurtry is often referred to as a political writer or protest singer, but he says he’s only written maybe two straight-up protest songs. One of them, “We Can’t Make It Here,” is a takedown of the treatment—or lack of treatment, as the case may be—of military veterans. It was the song that launched him into the public eye. But pigeonholing McMurtry as a protest singer is not only inaccurate, it puts him in a position he doesn’t like to be in.
“I’ve always had a little bit of social commentary in my songs,” he says. “But it’s dangerous to get onto a soapbox because you can turn into a preacher that way. You can start to write a song and wind up with a sermon and nobody really wants to hear it.
On Complicated Game, there isn’t a straightforward protest song in sight. The album is intimate, with songs about the passing of time, complex relationships, blue-collar life, and finding your place in the world. For not writing from his own perspective, McMurtry is an expert at writing personal songs, and this album is perhaps the most personal one yet. On it, McMurtry explores his characters’ pride, love, joy, struggles, and regret. For being a master craftsman, though, McMurtry conveys a humble sense that he’s just following a songwriter tradition.
“I kind of patterned my songwriting on story writers like Kristofferson and John Prine,” he says. “They were the models for me. I haven’t really invented anything here.”
James McMurtry will perform at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 12 at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $20. 603-2294. PHOTO: Singer-songwriter James McMurtry comes to Don Quixote’s on Friday, June 12, on the heels of his new album ‘Complicated Game’ which delves into the lives of several fictional characters.