It’s been nearly seven years since James McMurtry released his last full-lengther. I interviewed him around the time of that album (2008’s Just Us Kids) and I remember, long after our 15-minute chat, I was still unpicking (extra/hidden) meaning from the simple sentences he offered. He spoke in song lyrics – James McMurtry Song Lyrics, so simple, so bold. We finished the interview with me asking him a fairly hackneyed question around songwriting, around his approach. His answer was magnificent. He mentioned that he felt it was important to rest and eat correctly. To not skip meals and to make sure it was a balanced diet (“you gotta eat right, get a good night’s sleep too”). Also he liked to keep his eyes open as he drove up and down the country; “and when you’re in the passenger seat you get to look out the side windows, that’s where you’ll see a lot of the action”.
What stopped me from thinking he was taking the piss was that I’d heard his music. And of course knew the story that now gets pushed a little lower down his one-sheet bio, his father is Lonesome Dove-novelist Larry McMurtry.
That literary pedigree is obvious when you hear James McMurtry’s music and new album, Complicated Game, shows the time off between records was filled – not only with acting and other writing – with time spent shaping these story-songs. If you’re a fan of Drive-By Truckers there’s plenty here for you (You Got To Me, These Things I’ve Come To Know), you’ll get moments of pared back Son Volt too (Deaver’s Crossing) and on Forgotten Coast McMurtry takes an old J.J. Cale feel (just as well Marvin Gaye didn’t write Call Me The Breeze) to drape his rocking-chair tale over.
You might want to reach for a Steve Earle comparison too, and fair enough – but it’s in the lyrics that McMurtry really shows who is boss, shows he’s boss. The record opens with the line, “Honey don’t you be yelling at me while I’m cleaning my gun” – but this is no flag-waving Toby Keith first-and-second-amendment knuckle-dragger, this is the slow disintegration of a marriage, observed in the same way as Willy Vlautin might frame it.
And on South Dakota we have Steve Earle, Bobbie Gentry, Vlautin and the early Jeff Tweedy material all simmering on the porch.
Only McMurtry can sell this kind of drama though. His writing matched by that world-weary delivery; a guy just eating his greens, keeping the plate clean and checking out the window as he drives down the line.
You’ll find some new line to marvel over – part of its magic is always in the way McMurtry has said it (on the page and on the stage). You’ll think about these songs long after they’re done.