When James McMurtry was announced at The Turf Club, people were surprised. What wasn’t a surprise was how quickly tickets were snapped up. There are a whole lot of long time, hardcore McMurtry fans around here. While Austin’s Continental Club resident band may not be a special event in Texas, it certainly is here.
Some weeks back, I stumbled on the late 90s mini series Lonesome Dove. That huge hit was an adaptation of McMurtry’s father Larry’s highly regarded novel of the same name. I got to thinking about how James was coming to town soon. And how much the man is cut from the same cloth.
I first saw McMurtry in ’89 or’90 when he stopped into the former Guthrie, touring his break out debut Too Long In The Wilderness. Back then reviews and impressions used descriptions like world weary, old soul, jaundiced eye. This is probably the 5th or 6th time I’ve seen the man and I say without hesitation, those same phrases still apply. I think James McMurtry showed up as an older man 30+ years ago and he’s never really changed. The new music and old blend seamlessly. The stories remain familiar. Only the political shots change.
Going to a James McMurtry show is a different kind of experience. Is it Texas rock and roll? Country or alt? Singer/songwriter fare? Well, all of the above, I’d have to say. But the guy is like the anti rock star. There is zero in his performances which demand you pay attention to him. You pay attention to his characters and the stories they tell. Those are timeless. Unique characters who we all seem to know. It’s best to let them say their piece.
Why did I mention him being cut from the same cloth as his father? I know little to nothing about Larry McMurtry. Nor do I have any idea how son James grew up or what their relationship may have been. However, there are strong genetics at play here. McMurtry songs are like short stories. Both are highly literary and takes the time to develop characters. They become vignets as tangible as the characters of Lonesome Dove. This is not to say that he’s cribbed in any way from his father’s writing. What it means is that McMurtry songs feature far horizon lines and empty spaces. The wind blows and dust gets into everything as his character crosses the wasteland. In the grand scheme, that individual man is noble. But he’s badly outgunned by the land that surrounds him.
That was the main reason so many of us were surprised when The Turf date was announced; the Turf is primarily the town’s best little “rock pocket”. Yes, there are singer/songwriters on their schedule but it’s not like the aforementioned Guthrie or Dakota. You need some noise to fill that room. With his Austin based band of buddies, that wasn’t a problem. On a number of occasions, the band dropped into a groove and let it be known they could motor along with the best of them. But those guitars and accordions were there to frame the story, never take precedence from it.
McMurtry is old school. Does it his way. Speaks little between songs. He knows people are there to hear his tunes. Not watch him play. He’s dry as West Texas and when somebody shouted out a request he drawled: “There’s what you all want and there’s what you’re gonna get.”
He fits neatly into that category of writer, first and foremost. Yes, he’s a great guitar player and his baritone voice is doused in smoke, dust and long dirt roads. But the gift is the characters he creates. Always flawed. Usually challenged. And like Texas men for generations before him, overmatched by circumstance but still defiant. Stand him next to writers like Patterson Hood, Lucinda Williams, Dave Alvin and Alejandro Escovedo. He’s that good.
Austin came to St Paul last night and that became apparent immediately when Austin artist BettySoo kicked off the festivities. Since it was a sold out show, the crowd was early arriving and packed to the front. After a couple of songs of heartbreak and loss, I moved closer to the stage. One of my pet peeves is people yakking over an opening artist. Sometimes, the support act is simply a bone thrown to somebody. Or a record companies attempt to get us to notice somebody. But for the most part, if it’s a traveling act, as opposed to somebody local, it’s because they deserve the slot. BettySoo certainly did. She’s no new comer. She’s been singing her songs around Austin for years.
I found myself rooting for her but began to wonder if bringing this bill to The Turf wasn’t a mistake. Not to worry, mid set she brought out McMurtry’s rhythm section and jumped into a rocker which overwhelmed those trying to have a chat while the artist worked. Good call. The balance of the set mixed more of those songs of longing with those that got up in your face. Her observation that songs about being cheated on are fundamentally different from those where you do the cheating was one of the funniest lines I’ve heard from a stage in along time.
BettySoo’s an Austin player. The music she brought us was part and parcel of her home. It was another reminder that there are music scenes all over the country. This town is particularly proud of its spot in the pecking order. Austin may no longer be that weird town anymore; giving way to a weird big city as the population has boomed. But when BettySoo was rolling, with McMurtry to follow, I figured it was time to offer up some thanks. It’s a long way down to Texas. Whenever they choose to visit us here, we’ll sell it out.