James McMurtry has wrapped up a new album, and he’s playing Magnolia Motor Lounge on Friday. The album will be the follow-up to the Austin-based, Fort Worth-born Americana singer-songwriter’s single “State of the Union,” which he released online in 2017. McMurtry’s most recent full-length was Complicated Game, released in 2015. These are promotional-minded facts about James McMurtry, distilled from his publicist’s recent email and other online sources. I’m relating these promotional facts to you because relating promotional facts to you is what music articles are ultimately for. As a James McMurtry fan, I am happy to participate in disseminating this information, even though James McMurtry, at this phase of his career, pretty much sells himself.
By this phase of his career, I mean that his fans have probably been with him for at least half of –– if not more than –– the 30-plus years he’s been crossing stages. This is not to say that he doesn’t make new fans or that he doesn’t care to make new fans. He’s an incredible songwriter and guitarist, each album and show rolling over your imagination and soul like a white-hot short story collection. Lines and phrasings from his songs stick in your brain for days and years later. That James McMurtry has a new album out is great news for longtime fans. If you’ve never heard him (and are therefore primed to become a new fan), I’m sure you’ll enjoy his music –– particularly if you like tales of regular people barely making it or, less charitably, on the brink of falling terminally behind in America’s dick-and-balls-forward stomp into history. I couldn’t tell you which of McMurtry’s characters seem “the realest,” because they all seem like real people, and even the vaguest detail speaks volumes. “Choctaw Bingo” is McMurtry’s best-known song, and when he sings about Bob, who coaches a 2A football team in a town near Lake Texoma, you can pretty much hear in your head why his team won’t be threepeat champions, even if all he says is, “They won’t be this year. No, they won’t be this year.”
That song is funny and giddy and a little sad, and it also makes you intrigued and kind of frightened to think about who lies up in the Oklahoma backwoods with BAR rifles and mail-order brides, cooking meth and trapping slackers into owner-financed acre lots. McMurtry songs deal in the pain of struggling against circumstances beyond your control, but his view is usually objective –– if he levies a criticism, it’s never an ad hominem attack. Other than his opposition to war profiteering, he doesn’t really pick a side. James McMurtry’s lyrical mastery finds the dignity in growing up rough and living that way, like the narrator of Complicated Game’s “Copper Canteen,” and the sanctimonious malevolence in upstanding, gulf-fishing, gun-toting Christians, like the unnamed sister in “State of the Union.” Yet he doesn’t really get political.
“Not much politics in this [new] record,” he told me in a phone interview. “It’s not the main thrust of what I do. And when you put that in the foreground, it becomes a sermon.”
McMurtry seems interested in the background of things. While discussing how entrenched private soldiers are in America’s current Middle-East policies, he allowed that they were a necessary component to Operation Iraqi Freedom’s initial aims. I gathered that he’s interested in the ambient aspects of the world and how they facilitate a story, whether it’s the sound of the van’s tires on the freeway or a person’s first stop in a buffet line.
The siblings in “State of the Union” gathered for their mom’s 80th birthday are a fascist brother, the aforementioned gun-toting Christian, and the narrator, whom his brother refers to as a “snowflake if ever there was.” The brothers get along long enough to take Mom to Golden Corral, where she goes HAM on yeast rolls and Bourbon Street chicken.
I asked him what he listens to.
“White noise,” he said. “That’s when I can hear the melodies in my head.”
7pm Fri w/Bonnie Whitemore at Magnolia Motor Lounge, 3005 Morton St, FW. $20. 817-332-3344.