It’s hard to believe it’s been 26 years since the where-did-this-come-from release of James McMurtry’s Columbia Records debut Too Long in the Wasteland, produced by John Mellencamp. His latest effort and the 12th of his career, Complicated Game, made a ton of 2015 year-end best lists, but I could almost feel his eyes roll when I asked, “How did it do financially?”
“Man, I haven’t made any money on a record since Childish Things, which came out in 2005,” the Austin singer-songwriter says sardonically. “It’s a whole new game now. You make a record so you have a reason to tour and to give the press a fresh reason to remember who you are. You go in hoping you'll make money, but that's not usually the reality anymore.”
Released earlier this year, Complicated Game was produced by noted Louisiana roots producer C.C. Adcock, and was something of a milestone for McMurtry, who has produced the bulk of his albums himself. While the album hasn’t sold all that well, its first single, the hip-hop-inflected “How’m I Gonna Find You Now,” was little short of a miracle and was certainly one of the oddest hits in so-called Americana music this year.
“It went into the Top 10 on the Americana Music Association chart just a couple of weeks after we released it,” McMurtry explains. “Now that chart is more an album format, but we released the single a good while before the album came out. It was the first single to ever make it into the Top 10 on its own, so that felt pretty good and seemed to indicate that a lot of people were getting it.”
The tune may be the first to feature hip-hop beats overlaid with psychedelic banjo.
“The hip-hop thing was mostly C.C.’s idea,” McMurtry recalls. “Then we got to thinking maybe a banjo would give it that extra touch of weirdness, so I said, ‘Just email that to Danny Barnes and let him do something with it.’ And he did.”
One of the original members of Bad Livers, Barnes, who lives in the Northwest these days, is known for his experimental, punk attitude toward the instrument.
“Yeah, Danny just nailed it, did exactly what that tune needed,” says McMurtry. “We were all very happy with Danny’s contribution. That was a pretty easy decision to make when we were putting the album together.”
To longtime fans, Complicated Game just seems like another link in an unbroken chain of albums centered around McMurtry’s highly literate and acerbic observations of our current society, which he distills into no-quarter tales of the everyday. While “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” made the biggest splash with radio, other tunes, like “Carlisle's Haul” and the explicit soldier’s lament “South Dakota,” have become fan favorites in spite of no airplay. Both tunes seem as if they were cut directly from the present reality.
“It’s not easy out there for most folks; there’s no easy way,” McMurtry observes. “I find a lot of people’s stories interesting, especially the stories that don’t fit the American dream. Those people and their day-to-day hustle to get by is something I find pretty compelling. I can relate to that.”
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In the tense, brooding “Carlisle’s Haul,” economic pressure causes a commercial fisherman to run an illegal seining operation at night. But he’s joined by his neighbors who are the kind of folks who quietly help each other no matter what law enforcement says or some politician legislates.
These days crabbin’ and fishin’ and holdin’ on to a pot to piss in
Is just about the best a man can do
“Some people have it pretty good right now,” says McMurtry, “but they don’t really interest me as far as songwriting. It’s easier for me to find something meaningful or a good story among people who don’t have it so well.”
James McMurtry performs at 7 & 9:30 p.m. tonight at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk.