Nobody writes lyrics like James McMurtry. Brilliant, piercing and wry. Sweeping vistas of ordinary lives, set mostly in small towns and dark backwaters. Songs like novels. Literature.
Sure, he’s plenty smart and his father Larry is one of the greatest novelists ever to come out of the Lone Star state, but even that doesn’t fully explain the strength of this work. Powerful songs such as “Levelland”, a charging rocker and the best ever portrait of hard life in panhandle Texas, “Choctaw Bingo”, a fantastic, mesmerizing journey into the redneck underworld of east Texas and “Ruby and Carlos”, a brutally poignant vision of the slow death of impossible love. Layers of complex meaning, portraits of people lost in the dark corners of this big world, pieces of biting beautiful reality. Randy Newman, maybe, but in a cowboy hat.
McMurtry was raised in Fort Worth and Virginia, where he attended a prestigious prep school. At the University of Arizona in Tucson, he started playing his songs in front of small crowds, then he played a few shows in Alaska and moved to San Antonio to work as a bartender and house painter, and maybe become an actor or a songwriter. He’s been living in Austin for quite a while now.
In 1987 McMurtry was one of the New Folk winners at the Kerrville Folk Festival. By 1989 he released his debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, then Candyland in 1992 and the phenomenal Where’d You Hide the Body in 1995. He then released It Had to Happen in 1997, Walk Between the Raindrops in 1998, St. Mary of the Woods in 2002, Childish Things in 2005 (album of the year in the Americana Music Awards), Just Us Kids in 2008, and Complicated Game in 2015.
James McMurtry’s words are often rough and acerbic, delivered with weight and solemnity, but the wisdom is always there, and sometimes sharp humor and bitter irony. Deep as mud but clear as spring water.
Three things to know about McMurtry (1) his son Curtis is an up and coming songwriter, (2) his first album was produced by John Mellencamp, and (3) he once played guitar for luminous madman Kinky Friedman.