Sitting at the back of a darkened Austin club watching the duo onstage, one listener is a bit restless, clapping briefly but emphatically after every song. He's also proud as hell.
Watching his 24-year-old son Curtis perform isn't anything new for James McMurtry. But seeing his flesh-and-blood coming into his own alongside his cello-playing girlfriend Diana Burgess -- while they nail their harmonies and phrasing -- leaves the Texas-born singer-songwriter still shaking his head when he sits down for an interview after the show.
"I used to sing to him at night when he was real little; maybe that helped," the elder McMurtry says. "But I never taught him how to write a song. He figured that out on his own. I'm basically doing the 1-4-5 with a relative minor [when I write] but he's got a degree in music composition.
"It's this iTunes generation," he continues. "He can access all of music history but I didn't have that, all I had was vinyl. So if you've got the curiosity, it's the perfect time to be a musician. He's teaching me the value of curiosity, and rehearsing. I've never been that particular, and it probably shows."
Sure, he may not possess his son's versatile chops on guitar or the style-mashing music evident in Curtis's songs, but McMurtry has plenty of lessons to pass on about how to create lyrics that stick in a listener's craw.
More important, he can pass on to his son how to survive in an ever-changing industry that plays no favorites. Perhaps that's why his new 12-song CD -- released on Tuesday, 25 years after his debut album in 1989 -- is titled Complicated Game.
It's McMurtry's first release since 2008's Just Us Kids, and comes a decade after Childish Things, the album that spawned the political diatribe "We Can't Make it Here" that attracted a legion of new fans and has basically kept him on a never-ending road trip ever since.
"I just really didn't need to make another record until now," he explains. "The draw [at shows] had held up pretty good after the last couple of records and I still sell a lot of hard product 'cause my crowd is my age for the most part. It's a lot easier for me to play live than record. The studio's not comfortable for me entirely. I don't record unless I need to and I don't write until I have to record."
Despite the success of Childish Things, McMurtry couldn't find a producer willing to work with him, even though he had collaborated with the likes of John Mellencamp and Don Dixon in his early days. After producing his previous five releases on his own, McMurtry found a kindred spirit in C.C. Adcock, one of his Louisiana drinking buddies, to helm the controls for the new indie release. Adcock, who fronts his own band, has worked with the likes of Robert Plant and made a bundle of loot from his soundtrack work for HBO, brought in Mike Napolitano, whose credits include Blind Melon, as co-producer.
"I had used up everything I'd remembered as a producer and was repeating myself stylistically. I didn't want to make just another James McMurtry record," the artist says. "It was a totally different process this time. The label wanted a solo acoustic record, so I just said we'll make it kind of acoustic. But I started each track doing vocals and guitar only to a click track, then I could replace them and stack the other tracks after that."
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For the most part, Adcock succeeded in breaking the McMurtry mold, by adding more space to the arrangements, as well as some rootsier influences, even tossing in several of his own swampy guitar licks at the sessions in New Orleans. McMurtry's live band -- Daren Hess, Tim Holt and Cornbread -- provide the basics, while Benmont Tench was recruited to play keyboards and Ivan Neville contributes some vocals. Curtis McMurtry is also in the mix, playing banjo on opening cut "Copper Canteen."
Though created out of necessity, Complicated Game is hardly a rush job, nor are the compositions any less infused with the complex McMurtryian slice-of-life tales of rocky relationships, small-town losers who wash down blood-pressure pills with Red Bull, or women with sexy body art who like to go commando. One of the most jarring cuts is "South Dakota," which tells the tale of a military veteran who comes back to his family ranch and, facing a grim reality, wonders whether he should just re-enlist rather than "get broke and older."
Having acclaimed novelist Larry McMurtry -- who penned Terms of Endearment and Lonesome Dove -- as your father might put too much pressure on a son developing his own style as a songwriter, but James said the fact that his father was a novelist made it that much easier for him to be a musician, rather than have to break away from a staunch family history of ranching, as his father had done.
As for his own writing process, and his ability to weave Walt Whitman-style rhyming couplets into tales about complex characters pulled out of a scene with Breaking Bad's Walter White, McMurtry is typically matter-of-fact.
"I don't worry about the process as much any more, so maybe it's easier now from that sense," he says. "I get a couple of lines and a melody and then I think, 'Who said that?' And then I'll find the character. My songs are fiction. All of 'em. It's just a different kind of fiction."
James McMurtry performs at 7 and 9:30 p.m. this Friday, February 27 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. See mcgonigels.com for ticket info.
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