James McMurtry’s Hard Truths From the Heartland
A veteran singer-songwriter makes an excellent album about fending off despair
Last year, a promotional billboard went up in James McMurtry’s hometown of Austin that dubbed him “the most disinterested man in the world,” after the popular Dos Equis beer ad. It’s a distinction he’s more than earned, thanks to his deadpan, just-the-facts singing voice and nonjudgmentally bleak worldview. McMurtry, 53, has been making records since the late Eighties, writing vividly observed songs that are often compared to the work of his father, Larry McMurtry, author of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning Western novel Lonesome Dove and the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain.
James’ writing can operate on a grand scale (his 2005 song “We Can’t Make It Here” became an anthem during the Occupy Wall Street protests). But he usually goes for a hard-bitten intimacy. “My goal is to write the best song, and usually the way to do that is stay in character,” he says. “Once in a while you get away with getting your own point across.”
Complicated Game, his new album and first in six years, is full of characters looking at the long haul and fending off despair. “I see them as enduring, not fading away,” he says. “Standing against the current that wants to wash you away but can’t, yet.”
McMurtry, who was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and raised in suburban D.C., moved to Austin around the time of his 1989 debut, Too Long in the Wasteland. He likes Texas for its centrality, a midpoint between coasts for a musician who’s constantly on the road. “We know where every six-dollar Indian buffet is in every town in the country,” he says. “That’s why I’m in favor of open immigration. It really has improved the food situation in America.”
After years of being reminded of his famous dad, McMurtry is now seeing his own son begin his artistic career; 24-year-old Curtis released his debut record last year. “I had about five minutes between being Larry’s boy and being Curtis’ dad,” he says. “That was a pretty good five minutes.”
Ultimately, though, McMurtry exists in a literate but ornery space all his own. Complicated Game’s first song, “Copper Canteen,” begins, “Honey, don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun/I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done.” Asked if those lines are based on real life, he deadpans, “Nobody yells at me when I clean my gun.”