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The Book of James

Colorful characters fill James McMurtry's Tex-rock sound

Call it consumer action taken to the next level: If most of us are dissatisfied with the service or treatment at a business, we can write the usual complaint letter, call a manager on the phone or even boycott the place. But if you're a musician, you can always put your thoughts and feelings down on paper and even add a tune to it. And if you're Texas singer/songwriter James McMurtry and happen to be pissed at flying the unfriendly skies once too often, you might put the tune on one of your records.

"Mister airline agent won't you understand / I'm a frequent traveler and a patient man, / But I've been mistreated a time or two, / I've stood about all I'm gonna stand from you" opens "Airline Agent," off McMurtry's most recent release, Walk Between the Raindrops (Sugar Hill Records). Oddly enough, this song about being frustrated by mass transit and getting hassled for your appearance is one of the more lighthearted tracks on the record.

"The first two lines from that song are actually from a letter that [bassist Ronnie Johnson] wrote to United Airlines," says McMurtry, from his home in Austin, in a drawl somewhere between sleepy and detached, "and I just thought it would make a great opening. But it happens all the time. We can't always wait for baggage claim to make the show, and they get mad when you try and bring a guitar on board. Even though it's just a solid body electric and will fit in the overhead compartment."

Naderesque gripes aside, Walk Between the Raindrops offers ten tales filled with McMurtry's wry, laconic and often dour chronicles of life's losers, strugglers and dreamers threaded through with a blend of country, folk and rock. There's the struggling alcoholic of "Every Little Bit Counts," the local who wants to cash in on a nearby tragedy in "Tired of Walking," the musician itching to get out of town in "Racing to the Red Light" and the jettisoned boyfriend who has seen a private disagreement turn into a full-blown neighborhood event fit for the Springer show in "I Only Want to Talk to You."

"Some of these characters are based on people I meet," McMurtry says. "There's whole bars full of them.... It's really disturbing. I guess you get what you write."

It's this strength as a storyteller and an ability to create vivid sonic images that has garnered McMurtry a small but cultish following since his 1989 debut, the critically acclaimed Too Long in the Wasteland. Of course, the overused cliche is that his gift runs in the family, as his father is Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment, The Last Picture Show). But the younger has also got something in common with Bob Dylan, another performer whose songwriting talent and no-frills playing overcome any criticism of a limited singing range.

More than on any of his previous records, the songs on Walk Between the Raindrops reveal a lot of memorable melodies and hooks that stick with you long after the CD has finished playing. A great hook holds together the title track, written in the form of advice on life to a lifeless teen glued to the computer monitor.

"I didn't think about trying to make this record different from the rest in terms of what the songs were about or how they sounded," says McMurtry. "It's all just an exercise in getting through the recording session, coming up with the words and getting the basic tracks to feel good. And a lot of the songs were incomplete when we cut them at first, so I just added a verse in later. Actually, it's a pretty cool way to put together a record."

McMurtry wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the record with the exception of his reading of Townes Van Zandt's "Rex's Blues," whose lyrics of farewell seem all the more poignant in the wake of Van Zandt's alcohol-induced death a while back.

"I didn't really get into Townes until the '80s, but we liked this song because it really lent itself to a groove," McMurtry says. "Actually, a lot of his songs do."

James McMurtry was born in Fort Worth in 1962, but he lived in Houston from age three to seven while his father taught creative writing at Rice University and his mother studied as a graduate student. His parents would divorce soon after.

McMurtry had an interest in music early on and played in several bands during his teen years. He briefly attended the University of Arizona in the early '80s, then moved to San Antonio and took a series of odd jobs such as housepainter, bartender and happy-hour serenader while honing his musical skills and playing at open mike nights. In 1987 he was a Kerrville Folk Festival songwriting contest winner.

His big break came the next year when his father was collaborating on a screenplay with rocker John Mellencamp, who saw the film (ultimately released as Falling From Grace) as a vehicle for his acting debut. McMurtry's father passed along a tape of his son's music to the star, which inspired Mellencamp to call the younger McMurtry to Indiana to record both Too Long in the Wasteland and the 1992 follow-up, Candyland.

McMurtry and his small combo toured relentlessly, also releasing Where'd You Hide the Body in 1995 and It Had to Happen for Sugar Hill two years later, after Columbia dropped him from its roster. McMurtry, in the meantime, had moved to Austin in 1989 and still lives there today with his wife and eight-year-old son.

Though McMurtry may seem tight-lipped in both conversation and on record, he's really just a thoughtful guy who chooses his words carefully. Even if he's talking to Delta or United or TWA. After all, he is the son of a novelist.

James McMurtry performs Thursday, April 22, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Two shows, beginning at 8 p.m. (smoke-free) and 10 p.m. Tickets are $12. Call (713)528-5999.

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