Decades from now, when social anthropologists look back on which musicians most accurately and articulately captured the plight of the dwindling American middle class in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, they'll surely home in on the brilliant Austin songwriter James McMurtry. Rivaled only by Jason Isbell in his ability to construct compelling tales of small-town pathos without sounding patronizing, McMurtry doesn't exploit his characters or paint them in overly dour strokes; even his meth-heads have a good time here and there.
But off-the-grid life isn't an excuse for McMurtry to sing about lakefront bonfires and Daisy Dukes. Such backwoods blowouts are the stuff of Music Row fiction, filled with trucks, cans (both containing beer and affixed to chests) and one-night stands. Yet for as flawed as the protagonists in his songs can be, you'd still much rather spend time with them than the buff bros and babes by the beach.
In February, McMurtry will release his first studio album since 2008, Complicated Game. "Carlisle's Haul" and "Copper Canteen," a pair of tracks he's been road-testing for awhile, make it clear that McMurtry hasn't lost his touch. But in his 25-plus-year career, these ten tunes (okay, 11) are arguably his finest:
10. "Childish Things" & "Just Us Kids" The biggest cop-out in compiling a top 10 list for a prolific artist is to begin with a tie for 10th. But these two songs, the title tracks of McMurtry's previous two studio albums, are so thematically linked that it seems acceptable to fudge a little.
In the latter, McMurtry's narrator wakes up to realize he's well into middle age and still acting like a teenage yahoo, while the former grudgingly accepts the inevitability of maturation and the responsibilities that come with it.
9. "Out Here in the Middle" The flyover states have several distinct advantages, as McMurtry articulates here. But they'd be a whole lot better if his lover were there to experience it all with him.
8. "Gulf Road" Heartbreaking, gorgeous and languidly paced, this is the rare McMurtry tune that eschews dry wit for a heavy shot of sincerity.
7. "Iolanthe" One of McMurtry's groovier numbers, the title itself is a reminder of how erudite he is. As both his father (Larry) and son (Curtis) exhibit as well, the shrewdest of genes sometimes wear jeans.
6. "Restless" By his own admission, this is McMurtry's most effective live number, an infinitely relatable, bouncy yarn about how tough it is for two people to truly connect.
5. "Peter Pan" Of a piece with "Just Us Kids," this tune grounds the fairy tale about a boy who doesn't want to grow up in a hell-raiser's reality. "I guess I really did it this time, mom" is something everybody's said at one time or another. Here, it's the featured fuckup's default gear.
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4. "We Can't Make It Here" While this track was released during George W. Bush's presidency (McMurtry attended boarding school in Virginia with his younger brother), the seeds for it were sown during the Clinton years, when free trade shipped scores of middle-class jobs to cheaper foreign shores. Virtually every other line makes you tingle with anger and determination, and it's the rare protest song that never seems dated.
3. "Broken Bed" McMurtry is known for being a brilliant lyricist whose melodies function mainly as vessels for his words, but this track--about a relationship that's past its breaking point -- is as infectious, simple and danceable as they come.
2. "St. Mary of the Woods" The complex title track off McMurtry's best album speaks to the frustration of not being able to eclipse a certain level of notoriety. But the highlight here is McMurtry's intricate picking amidst several instrumental buildups; as his Austin Continental Club gig-mate Jon Dee Graham says, "He's a monster guitar player."
1. "Choctaw Bingo" "I write what I see through the windshield," says McMurtry, and he's not kidding. At the root of his songwriting prowess is a keen eye for detail, and no song -- by anyone, really -- is more representative of the fruits of such an approach as this Midwestern meth-head masterpiece, which Graham regards as "architecturally amazing."
James McMurtry plays two sets (7 and 9:30 p.m.) Saturday night at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. See mcgonigels.com for ticket information.
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