Tales of the Heartwarming Darkness: James McMurtry

James McMurtry, who's name I keep wanting to spell minus the "r" at the end, has written some damn good songs. He's the son of a southern pop-novelist and english professor who delivers his tightly worded short stories with incredible authenticity and grace. For years, McMurtry's been cruising around the edges of the Americana/folk music scene, playing extensive dates in his home state of Texas and points north and west, (Montana, Oklahoma, rodeos, county fairs) and quietly earning his place as one of the best songwriters you've never heard of.


McMurtry has an odd way of playing the guitar-he often plays a 12 string- somehow drawing out more emotion and mood out of simple chords than most. His voice is not dynamic-he's not quiet one song, desperate in another, and mournful in the next. Rather, he demonstrates a vocal consistency throughout his entire catalogue, and for good reason: it's downright honest, direct, and well-meaning.

Even in his darker short stories-and his songs are all short stories-are wrapped in his warm embrace. "Cutter", the last track off his excellent 2015 album Complicated Game, exemplifies the warmth McMurtry radiates even when exploring dark corners. Here, the narrator chronicles the thoughts of an anxiety ridden night. Dark, indeed, but the song is hugged in the hopeful affirmation that honesty with yourself and the world is always the best way to beat back the demons (the red ridges I can't hide/ they're on the outside"):


Now that you've heard the last song off Complicated Game, why not hear the first? The other bookend of this album lies perhaps McMurtry's best song, "Copper Canteen". Here, McMurtry is filling in the life story of the man next to you at a stoplight, the couple at the diner, or maybe parts of you. Again, the song is wrapped in the warm blanket of McMurtry's voice and 12 string guitar. The chords here move the story across the landscape. I've always imagined this particular song being set in New Hampshire, given the references to ice fishing, deer season, and a wood pile:



Lastly, another fine track off Complicated Game: "Long Island Sound". An old time Civil War fiddle greets the tune, only to shortly bleed into McMurtry's trademark warm guitar and storytellin' voice. Here, you'll hear a tale of a family man trying to "make it" in the suburbs of New York City after trying his luck in New Mexico and the Carolinas. The song details the man's thoughts as he's sitting in traffic that's "not for the squeamish or the faint of heart", reviewing future hopes, past dreams, and the scenery around him in equal parts:



Links:
Want to read more about McMurtry? Cool. Here, too. And right over here.


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