James McMurtry Knows What Works by Now
Photo courtesy of Conqueroo
From the my-how-time-flies category: James McMurtry, who plays a solo show at McGonigel's Mucky Duck Saturday, marks a quarter-century as a professional musician this year. He began his career in the late '80s by gaining recognition at songwriting events associated with the Kerrville Folk Festival, and managed to get a demo tape into the hands of John Mellencamp in 1988. At the time, Mellencamp was working on a movie with McMurty's father Larry, the author of such novels as Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show.
Too Long In the Wasteland, produced by Mellencamp, was a monumental, panoramic debut album that propelled McMurtry toward the front ranks of Texas singer-songwriters. Those who remember his earliest Texas tours will recall a young introvert struggling with the requirements and demands of the spotlight; it was not always comfortable to watch. With the brim of his trademark hat pulled down to shield him from close inspection by the audience, McMurtry won audiences over with his songs, his guitar playing, and his literate gravitas.
Along the way, he has built a reputation virtually on a par with such Texas storytellers as Robert Earl Keen, who gave McMurtry's career a shove when he covered his tune "Levelland" first live and then on Keen's 1997 album Picnic.
"Yeah, I'll always be grateful for Robert giving me that push," says McMurtry. "That exposure really helped me turn a corner as far as visibility. It put my name in front of his audience, and that moved things forward for me too."
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McMurtry spent a few early years in Houston when his father was teaching at Rice University. The family rented a house at 2219 Quenby, and McMurtry still recalls a visit from novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters that was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 bestseller The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
"They came twice, but I was only two the first time they came in 1964,"McMurtry recalls. "It caused quite a commotion in the neighborhood. That was really something to see, that psychedelic bus parked in front of our house.
"The second time they came was 1967," he continues. "I remember the neighbors kept coming out to look at it and all the weirdos that were on it. That was the visit where Ken Kesey set up what was supposed to be another acid test at Rice, but it all kinda fizzled. Recently some of the photos of all that, the bus parked at our house and the people who were on it, have been making the rounds on the Internet again.""Lost in the Backyard" finds James McMurtry ruminating on his early Houston home
McMurtry spoke to us from Tuscon, where he'd stopped to visit his father after making a video and playing a showcase in Los Angeles. His new album, produced by Louisiana rocker C.C. Adcock, is complete and will be released soon on Francois Moret's Complicated Game label.
"I've done a couple of albums with Lightning Rod Records, but C.C. brought Francois to one of my gigs at the Continental Club in Austin and he immediately said he'd sign me to Complicated Game," says McMurtry.
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"This works on several levels for me," he adds. "Other than them putting a significant push behind the new record, they've got European connections that are going to make touring over there much easier. And touring is the name of the game now."
Other than a new album and a new label with good financial backing, what McMurtry is really excited about at the moment is the budding career of his son Curtis.
"He just played [NPR's] Mountain Stage and I couldn't be there. But I like his album, and he's working hard to make his own career happen."
McMurtry notes his son "started writing songs when he was a teenager, and he seems to have a real knack for it."
After managing his own affairs for his entire career, Austin-based McMurtry recently signed with industry vet Jenni Finlay's new artist-management company.
"Jenni finally figured out that radio is just not enough in most cases," McMurtry explains. "These days, you have to tour more, not less, so it finally just made sense to have someone else do a lot of the planning and guidance so I can get on the road and make my part of it work."
McMurtry hasn't had a new studio album since 2008's Just Us Kids, which was preceded by Childish Things (2005). The latter album yielded the single "Can't Make It Here Anymore," which garnered several mentions as the top song of the decade. But McMurtry promises the new album will be something of a change.
"This one isn't as political and direct about it as the two previous albums were," he says. "This one is more about relationships than the previous albums. It's not something I consciously decided, it's just the way this bunch of songs came together. But hopefully a few people will like it."
James McMurtry performs Saturday evening at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Portsmouth. Showtime is 7 p.m.
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