When James McMurty recently introduced his song “Levelland” (“one of the Robert Earl Keen songs I wrote”) at The Birchmere, he explained that he’d taken some poetic license in the titular setting. (Levelland is a small town in a Texas west of Lubbock.) The song was inspired by Max Crawford, a novelist who lived in another small West Texas town, Floydada. He joked that Crawford is the best novelist to ever come from Floydada, and likely the only one.
Max, he said, shot himself in the foot by “trying to be a true artist, which is always a mistake.” He wanted to title his first novel The Penis of Jesus, and the publisher wouldn’t issue it as such; later it came out as Backslider, which James praised as excellent novel. He would know: his late father was Larry McMurtry, one of the most celebrated writers of the last 60 years.
“Floydada,” James told the audience at The Birchmere on Sept. 14, “didn’t fit the meter. I work in meter and rhyme,” and they take precedence over truth. This brings to mind something Kurt Vonnegut wrote in the Editor’s Note at the beginning of Mother Night: “lies told for the sake of artistic effect…can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth.”
While McMurtry’s song may depart from the facts of Crawford’s life, it expresses bigger truths about small towns, and about being an outsider.
For over 30 years, McMurtry has been making music that often focuses on small towns, on the people who struggle to fit in there, on the stories of underdogs and people who struggle. While he writes in a different medium from his father, James is every bit the storyteller his father was. Larry may have written, for the most part, Westerns, but he wasn’t stuck in the past; you need look no further than his adapted screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, which tells the story of the love between two cowboys, to see the progressive, empathetic core of his work, a sensibility that James shares.
James doesn’t just write about these things; he lives his ideals. He consistently supports female artists by bringing them on tour to open for him. On Thursday, we were treated to an excellent set by Austin-based singer-songwriter BettySoo. When the two were playing Knoxville, Tennessee a few months ago, they came out for the encore dressed in drag and played “Red Dress” to protest that state’s recent ban on such performances. That got some media attention, with a story appearing on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show. James remarked it’s the first time he’s been on national TV since he appeared on Letterman in 1989 to promote his debut album, Too Long In The Wasteland. It wasn’t a stunt meant to generate media attention: it was a real act of genuine political protest that carried the risk of being arrested, even if it was minimal.
In the 30-plus years since that’s debut album, McMurtry has steadily built a following while flying under the radar of popular notice. He’s never really had big hits. He quoted Townes Van Zandt, who used to say “Here’s a medley of my hit” before playing his classic “Pancho & Lefty.” For McMurtry, his “hit,” if you will, is the epic song “Choctaw Bingo,” a harrowing tale of family and the drug trade in northern Texas and southern Oklahoma. The song has been covered by fellow Americana stalwart Ray Wylie Hubbard, who mentioned playing it with James in the wild scenario he painted recently of what he’d do if he played the Superbowl halftime show. (Sadly, this is never going to happen.)
Watch James McMurtry perform “Choctaw Bingo” live for SXSW 2009 via YouTube:
On Sept. 14, I noticed how skilled a guitarist James is. I mentioned it to a friend who was there, and he said he’d never seen someone get so much out of an acoustic. There’s an old bit about how, when Mick Jagger heard Robert Johnson, he asked, “Who’s the other cat playing with him?” It was all just Robert, but the sound was so full, it was hard to believe it came from a single guitar. James’s playing Thursday night was on that level, and it did a real service to the finely crafted songs.
James started the show by going all the way back to his first album with “Painting by Numbers,” followed by “Saint Mary of the Woods.” “Red Dress” was the song he and BettySoo came out in drag for in Knoxville. Introducing “Copper Canteen,” a standout from his critically acclaimed 2015 album Complicated Game, he said it “earned him a mention in the failing New York Times.” He also had a bit about how “Don’t tread on me” plates seem to always appear on oversize, annoying vehicles, and there was a suggestion they might be from New York.
The set continued with “You Got To Me,” then “Rachel’s Song,” which, counterintuitively, is “not for Rachel.” Continuing with songs named for a woman, the next tune was “Jackie.” After “Choctaw Bingo” and “Levelland,” he did “Carlisle’s Haul” and “Down Across the Delaware.” He described “If It Don’t Bleed,” from his latest album, 2021’s The Horses and the Hounds, as “the happiest song I’ve written,” adding “nobody dies. Directly.”
McMurty is underrated for his humor and satire. AllMusic lists Randy Newman as among his numerous influences, and I can see that in “State of the Union.” It’s a funny song — maybe not haha funny, but funny — about the stresses amongst family members, especially when some of then have regressive, prejudiced beliefs. It’s something that almost all of us have dealt with — even in my family, who are overwhelmingly progressive, there are people who’ve really gone off the MAGA deep end. (My cousin Fred was always an odd duck, having gotten his PhD in Geography, but worked at a flea market.)
As he got toward the end of his show, James made a point, as he always does, of telling the audience to tip their servers generously, “starting at 20%.” He mentioned how, in Europe, they’re more civilized and pay their servers a living wage, but that’s not the case here, where servers a paid a disgracefully low wage and can only make it on tips.
The set wound down with “Peter Pan,” and for his encore, he played “Blackberry Winter” entirely unplugged. The audience was fully engaged; this was a respectful, attentive audience who came to hear songs.
I’d not seen BettySoo before, but I really enjoyed her opening set. The songs weren’t familiar to me, and I only can name a couple: “Down to Goodbye” and “Shadowlands.” She also did a number from the album she made with fellow Austin-based artists Grace Pettis and Rebecca Loebe as Nobody’s Girl. Somehow, in there, we got a delightful impression of Julia Child on the Martha Stewart. “I wasn’t born with much of a filter,” she said, a sentiment I can relate to.
If you appreciate great songs, you owe it to yourself to go hear James McMurtry. Very few artists are as respected by their peers, and as BettySoo told the audience, getting to see him is a master class.